The devil is known by many names.
The most common one, Satan, is often used, but only as a name. Like calling the one laying claim to soul “Alfie”. It is also used as a pejorative, a slightly sharper version of calling your own adversary “poopyhead”.
With the frequency of this type of use, few remember the Hebrew roots of the name, which translates Satan to “The Accuser”. In a number of respects, as James Alison puts it in Raising Abel, the act of accusing is a participation in the Satanic.
I raise this now in light of a media context in which accusation has increasingly become the currency of the day, with varying degrees of subtlety. Whether it is set in terms of the latest faux pais of the celebrity of the day, the association of whole communities with threats to life and limb, the labelling of one as blapsphemer, or the pointing of fingers at the next rung of church hierarchy responsible for covering up cases of sexual abuse, airwaves, pages and screens are awash with accusation. In this saturation of virtual accusation, the world of flesh and bone communities become caught up in the maelstrom, and become in turn participants in the cycles of accusation as we consume what the media peddles.
We indulge in this accusation for a very Augustinian reason. Accusing gives us the dose of self-righteousness necessary to elevate our status over that of another, to indulge in what he calls the “lust to dominate”. We are sick and tired of lives that bore or demean us that we long for a time when, even just for a moment, someone else can be more bored or demeaned than we are to make us feel better. In the course of accusation, we imagine our persons enlarged vis a vis the one being accused. As Rebecca de Young observes in her Glittering Vices, this is one element of the vice of wrath (I have written about how the vices play on how we imagine ourselves here).
We can see here accusation dehumanises the accused. He or she is being reduced to a mere instrument for someone else’s aggrandisement, their face covered by a mask imposed by the accuser.
However, we need to consider how accusation also dehumanises – indeed satanises – the accuser. This can be summaried by that other great Augustinian maxim: those who indulge in the lust to dominate do not know that they are the dominated.
While we feel ourselves aggrandised by participating in accusation, Alison points out that the act of accusation is also an act of the many against the one (even if there are many victims of accusation, we usually lump them together into a single category). In other words, accusation is an act of the mob, and when we accuse, we do so as part of the mob. And a mob is where a subject loses himself or herself into a faceless mass. As the picture indicates, when we focus on the finger pointing, our faces blur and dissipate. Paradoxically, we lose our subjectivity at the very moment we try to elevate it over others.
Thus the devil, in giving us the opportunity to indulge in a little self-glorification, is actually opening the door to our own self-annihilation.