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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