Hide and Seek

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Behold the Lamb of God: Scapegoating as an Ego Defense

Scapegoating is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

The ego defence of displacement plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated person is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional.

A good example of a scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called L’Autre-chienne—a pun playing on Autrichienne (Austrian woman) and Autre chienne (other bitch)—and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette came to France to marry the then heir to the throne, the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young foreign princess quickly became the target of the people’s mounting ire.

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A more recent example of a scapegoat is the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. In November 2011, Berlusconi quickly became the fall guy for the panic engulfing the eurozone, with forces both within and without Italy contriving and ultimately succeeding in having his government deposed in favour of an unelected cabinet of technocrats. Berlusconi’s roguish behaviour in both private and public matters could hardly have helped his case; even so, it did seem rather irrational to lay the blame for an international financial crisis onto the shoulders of a single person, albeit a hapless Prime Minister of Italy. As one commentator very succinctly put it, ‘Don’t turn a scoundrel into a scapegoat.’

A ‘scapegoat’ usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or daemons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized, objectified, and totemized; some, such as witches in medieval Europe, are quite literally demonized. The dehumanization of the scapegoat makes the scapegoating more potent and less guilt inducing, and may even lend it a sort of pre-ordained, cosmic inevitability.

The term ‘scapegoat’ has its origin in the Old Testament, more specifically, in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, according to which God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat.

The Lamb and Flag public house in Oxford, England
The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is said to have exclaimed, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). And in Christian imagery, Jesus is often depicted as the victorious Lamb of God of the Book of Revelation, with one leg hooked around a banner with a red cross—whence the name of one of Oxford’s most celebrated public houses, The Lamb & Flag (pictured). The sacrifice prescribed in the Book of Leviticus prefigures that of Jesus, who played the role of the first goat in his human crucifixion, and the role of the second goat, the scapegoat, in his divine resurrection.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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