The Psychology of Scapegoating

Is the time ripe for a new wave of scapegoating?

Posted Dec 21, 2013

[Article updated on 17 September 2017]


The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt.

Source: Wikicommons

The ego defence of displacement plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger, frustration, envy, and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated target 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.

A ‘scapegoat’ usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or demons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized and objectified; 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.

According to René Girard, owing to human nature, envy gradually builds up in a society until it reaches a tipping point, at which order and reason cede to mob rule, chaos, and violence. To quell this 'madness of the crowds', which poses an existential threat to the society, an exposed or vulnerable person or group is singled out as a sink for all the bad feeling, and the bad feeling bred from the bad feeling. 

After the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, Socrates, with his close links to prominent oligarchs such as Critias, who had been the first and worst among the Thirty, no longer seemed like the harmless eccentric of old, but like a dangerous and corrupting influence, a breeder of tyrants and the enemy of the common man. In the febrile atmosphere that had taken over the city, any accusation made against him, however false or fanciful, was apt to be seized upon as a pretext to punish him and turn him into a scapegoat for all the evils of the tyranny. Once dispatched, a scapegoat may, particularly if he is also a martyr (one who opposes or resists a belief that is being imposed upon him), be totemized. Today, Socrates is chiefly remembered by his death; and Seneca even went so far as to opine that 'it was the hemlock that made Socrates great' (cicuta magnum Socratem fecit).

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 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. 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 Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

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