Sacrifice: Bad Math, Bad Grammar
University of California, Riverside
This paper argues that sacrifice defeats many attempts to think about it because “it” is fraught with ironies and conceptual confusions. The ironies concern the “math” of sacrifice; the confusions, its “bad grammar.” Underlying both of these is the even more fundamental lack of clarity between kinds of sacrifice.
The author counts at least two broad kinds of sacrifice. First is ritual sacrifice: there, sheep literally are led to slaughter. Second is civic sacrifice: there, figurative “sheep” (soldiers?) are led either to figurative or real “slaughter.” The shortcomings (“bad math”) of utilitarian calculus emerge once we delve into the social policy framing civic sacrifice. The “bad grammar” of sacrifice shows itself in our inability to decide what we should think “sacrifice” is. The bizarre and self-conflicted state of public values eventuates in the “bad math” of sacrifice. Sacrifice means loss, giving up or at least giving “of,” destruction and, in many cases, death. But, characteristically, discourse promoting sacrifice talks as if losses are in reality gains – a case of “addition by subtraction.”
Proponents of civic sacrifice in war, for example, routinely argue how the loss of lives in heroic combat actually counts as gain. So the question is how and why we can produce addition by subtraction. Civic sacrifice is understood as a kind of giving to the community that in turn produces a moral obligation to give further and more broadly. This paper suggests that these deaths are regarded, both by the actors and their communities of reference, as gifts to the community. They are not meaningless suicides or mere acts of warfare.
“Sacrifice” is a powerful notion, fraught with complexities that need untangling. Strenski argues that if we wish to keep our thinking straight about the political rhetoric of sacrifice, we should pay special heed to traps in resorting to sacrificial discourse. Strenski sheds light on a few places where sacrificial talk can trap the unwary thinker. He suggests that sacrificial rituals of culture, such as cooking and eating communally, find analogies in civic sacrifice. There, dying for society is considered a gift and becomes “sacred.” As victims, sacrificial soldiers become blameless and without taint, with their primal innocence restored.