Sacrifice and Sasswood: Mimetic Desire and Rule-Of-Law Development in Liberia Open Access

Green, Timothy Brian (2011)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/dv13zt39n?locale=en
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Abstract

One of the most intractable problems for rule-of-law development in Liberia involves the "Sasswood" trial by ordeal and the difficulty of getting its indigenous Liberian practitioners to submit to the official legal process. This paper proposes that the work of Rene Girard on the structure of Mimetic Desire has much light to shed on this field, light that may reveal possible reasons for the rejection of the Western system as well as reasons for the Western incredulity at that rejection. It suggests that the structure of mimetic desire is evident in the bedrock assumptions of the American legal system (which is the dominant model both for the official Liberian legal system and for Western rule-of-law projects in general), and that this structure is replicated in the Liberian constitution, legal system, and cultural dynamic, in a way that has both led to destructive social violence and, left unacknowledged, prevents social healing. This paper will then attempt to explain the resilience of the sasswood ordeal within indigenous Liberian culture. To do so, it will again begin with Girard, whose insight that religion arises as a means to quell the social violence inherent as a result of mimetic desire provides a powerful hermeneutic for understanding sasswood. This analysis will show that the project of eliminating the ordeal amounts to asking community members to let go not just of a so-called "superstitious belief", but of an entire cosmological structure that provides order to the community itself, removal of which potentially opens the community to the contagion of social violence. Picking upon this notion of violence as "contagion", this paper will then apply the work of Paul Ricoeur, showing that the particular type of experience evident in conversations about the sasswood ordeal suggests that Liberia is undergoing a kind of cosmological crisis, one tantamount to the introduction of a radical evil into the Liberian symbolic framework. In conclusion, this paper will point toward a radical new frame for rule-of-law development in Liberia, one in which development workers view themselves as working for healing and reconciliation not just among Liberians, but between Liberia and the West.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: A Morning Dialogue.................................................................. 1

II. Mimetic Desire, the American Legal Tradition,

and the Rule of Law in Liberia ....................................................................11

A. Defining the Lens: Girard and the Basic Structure of Mimetic Desire................13

B. Focusing the Lens: American Notions of the Law..........................................17

C. The American Model Mirrored: The Foundation of Law in Liberia.....................25

D. Mimetic Desire and Rule-of-Law Development in Liberia................................33

III. Sasswood and the Contagion of Violence...................................................41

A. Girard and Sasswood as Sacrifice...............................................................43

i. Sacrifice, The Sacrificial Crisis, and the Scapegoat Mechanism................43

ii. Sasswood as Scapegoat Mechanism?...................................................49

B. Ricoeur and Sasswood as Ritual of Defilement.............................................53

i. Ricoeur and The Experience of Fault...................................................55

ii. Defilement and the Sasswood Ordeal..................................................60

IV. Conclusion: A Dialogue in Mourning .................................................................65

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