Social Psychology

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Scapegoating has real consequences on both a societal and individual level, especially in terms of dominance and oppression.

Early explanations of the Nazi genocide suggested that prejudice, scapegoating, participation in right wing movements, and willingness to commit brutality were directly linked to a particular authoritarian personality structure.~39 This concept has been widely refuted. This is not to suggest that there are not authoritarian personalities, but to recognize that authoritarian personalities, like prejudice and scapegoating, can appear across the political spectrum.~40 Furthermore, persons who test as having relatively non-authoritarian personalities can sometimes be manipulated into acts of brutality by authority figures.

The Milgram psychology studies involved subjects told by an authority figure that they were administering painful electric shocks to a third person. However, Milgram's original conclusions--that what he was observing was primarily the force of obedience--have been challenged by those who argue that other factors were involved. That average persons are capable of great brutality is not in question. The circumstances of such behavior, however, are complex, and involve the personality type, the trust given to the authority figure, peer approval, denial, the belief the acts are legal, and the view of the target as criminal, evil, or deserving of punishment.~41 Some persons resist engaging in brutality regardless of the sanctions threatened by an authority figure.

Many older studies of prejudice had a "tendency to collapse distinctions between types of prejudice..." observed Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.~42 They assumed "that a nationalism and racism, an ethnocentric prejudice and an ideology of desire, can be dynamically the same..." Furthermore, she observes "there is a tendency to approach prejudice either psychologically or sociologically without consideration for the interplay of psychological and sociological factors."~43

Individuals, organized groups, and mass movements often choose their enemy to consciously or unconsciously defend privilege or seek domination. Explicit ideologies of domination--husbands must control their wives, Christians are ordained to run the country, White people are superior--can gain widespread public acceptance in overt conscious campaigns, but in a way where the demonizing aspect of scapegoating rationalizes the underlying, and sometimes unconscious, desire to dominate. Popular movements that use demonization and scapegoating undercut attempts to extend democracy and diversity because of the ability of these movements to mobilize large numbers of persons, in part because the scapegoating disguises the underlying prejudice, oppression, or supremacy.

Ideologically-driven movement leaders (and opportunist mainstream politicians) cynically use demonization and scapegoating as a tactic to mobilize mass support from constituencies that are less conscious of the underlying ideology. In this way movement participants can objectively promote ideologies while denying that they are racist, sexist, homophobic, or antisemitic. Scapegoats need to be constructed with available materials that cobble together historic events, current issues, common myths, and popular prejudices. Conflict can generate scapegoating involving prejudice, but conflict does not cause prejudice, it unleashes and focuses pre-existing prejudice.~44 When conflict is not present, there still can be widespread prejudice.

Scapegoating provides a simple explanation for complex problems, and promises a simple and quick solution. Scapegoating is a binary macro-analytic model--good versus evil, us versus them. Acting out against the scapegoat is more immediately gratifying than the much more difficult process of addressing the complex economic or social problems institutionally embedded in the society. One again this is a complex dynamic. Girard points out, "The borderline between rational discrimination and arbitrary persecution is sometimes difficult to trace."~45

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