The Scapegoat

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The ritualized transference and expulsion of evil is a familiar theme across centuries and cultures.~4 In western culture the term "scapegoat" can be traced to an early Judaic ritual described in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. As Gordon W. Allport explains:

"On the Day of Atonement a live goat was chosen by lot. The high priest, robed in linen garments, laid both his hands on the goat's head, and confessed over it the iniquities of the children of Israel. The sins of the people thus symbolically transferred to the beast, it was taken out into the wilderness and let go. The people felt purged, and for the time being, guiltless."~5

The term scapegoat, however, has evolved to mean "anyone who must bear the responsibility symbolically or concretely for the sins of others," Richard Landes explains. "Psychologically, the tendency to find scapegoats is a result of the common defense mechanism of denial through projection."~6 This mechanism is a powerful and effective psychic defense despite its destructive effects on a society.~7

Scapegoating has two main versions:

personal misconduct ==> guilt ==> displacement toward scapegoat

frustration ==> aggression ==> displacement toward scapegoat~8

The actual process is complex.~9 Frustration does not always lead to aggression, and the aggression can be directed in a rational way towards constructively overcoming the obstacle creating the frustration.~10

One cannot, however, take the psychological model and directly apply it to a sociological model.~11 As psychiatrist Susan Fisher explains, the mechanism of scapegoating within a family-a well-studied phenomena-does not necessarily work the same way as the scapegoating of groups on a societal level where "the scapegoated group serves more as a metaphor,"~12 Scapegoating by large groups and social movements is not an indication of mass mental dysfunction, even though there may be psychological issues involved, and even though some of the individuals involved may suffer from a variety of psychological problems.~13 Recent research on the subject suggests the phenomena is more complicated than commonly pictured, involving several personality types and multiple psychological processes.~14

Herman Sinaiko observes that "The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies. When a community is in crisis, the standards and control mechanisms are weakened, and these people step forward and find their voice and an audience."~15

Eli Sagan argues that what he calls the "paranoidia" of greed and domination exemplified by "fascist and totalitarian regimes of this century" is present in less extreme forms in many societies. "The normal, expectable expressions--imperialism, racism, sexism, aggressive warfare--are compatible with the democratic societies that have existed so far."~16

There are many definitions for the term scapegoating when used to describe the process on a societal level, and it can be difficult to unravel the overlapping processes of scapegoating, stereotyping, and demonizing.~17 In this book we use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby hostility and aggression of an angry and frustrated group are directed away from a rational explanation of a conflict and projected onto targets demonized by irrational claims of wrongdoing, so that the scapegoat bears the blame for causing the conflict, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of innocence and increased unity. We will call it scapegoating whether or not the conflict is real or imaginary, the grievances are legitimate or illegitimate, or the target is wholly innocent or partially culpable.~18

When every person in a scapegoated group is accused of sharing the same negative trait, the processes of prejudice and stereotyping are involved. For our overall thesis to make sense, we need to defend this definition in some detail. We expect that as new research emerges, more nuanced and useful descriptions and definitions will evolve.

Scapegoating relies on the creation of a dichotomy between "us" and "them," pitting the familiar "in group" against the alien "out group."~19 By scapegoating our fabricated enemy "other" we not only create ourselves as heroes, but also define and enhance group cohesion, the identity of the "us."~20 In times when the core identity of a society is imperiled--when we have trouble figuring out who "we" are--the demand for enemy scapegoats is increased. The scapegoat thus serves a dual purpose by both representing the evil "them" and simultaneously illuminating, solidifying, and sanctifying the good "us."~21 As Landes explains, "In some cases the first steps toward social cohesion may be built upon such rituals" of scapegoating.~22 "And this is exactly the wondrous, if unconscious, outcome of the objectification of evil," explains Aho. "The casting out of evil onto you not only renders you my enemy; it also accomplishes my own innocence. To paraphrase [Nietzsche]...In manufacturing an evil one against whom to battle heroically, I fabricate a good one, myself."~23

Girard argues that "the effect of the scapegoat is to reverse the relationship between persecutors and their victims."~24 When persons in scapegoated groups are attacked, they are often described as having brought on the attack themselves because of the wretched behavior ascribed to them as part of the enemy group.~25 They deserved what they got. Scapegoating evokes hatred rather than anger. "[T]he hater is sure the fault lies in the object of hate," notes Allport.~26

When unresolved anger over conflict turns toward frustration and bitterness, scapegoating is a common result. As Ruth Benedict observed, "Desperate [people] easily seize upon some scapegoat to sacrifice to their unhappiness; it is a kind of magic by which they feel for the moment that they have laid [down] the misery that has been tormenting them."~27 As Benedict points out, "We all know what the galling frictions are in the world today: nationalistic rivalries, desperate defense of the status quo by the haves, desperate attacks by the have-nots, poverty, unemployment, and war." Benedict observes that "Whenever one group...is discriminated against before the law or in equal claims to life, liberty, and jobs, there will always be powerful interests to capitalize on this fact and to divert violence from those responsible for these conditions into channels where it is relatively safe to allow."~28

Persons that scapegoat are often reluctant to attack the actual causes of their grievances for a number of reasons. It is less dangerous to blame scapegoats that are weaker and thus less able to defend themselves. Moreover, it is not popular to attack groups that are powerful, respected, or have high status. Marginalized groups that have little public support make better scapegoats because more people are willing to join the blame game against such groups.

While scapegoats are often less powerful and more marginalized than the actual sources of conflict, this is not always the case.~29 Throughout history are examples of scapegoats with high status, including gods.~30 In this dynamic, scapegoating serves the status quo and protects those in power from criticism.~31

We can even be secretly jealous of the scapegoats we publicly loathe. Scapegoats can be seen to possess qualities that are admired, either openly or secretly, such as cunning, power, or sexual prowess. These coveted yet denied qualities are also projected onto the scapegoat.~32

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