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Kirby Farrell Ph.D.
Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

Lame Blame

Forgive the scapegoat to forgive yourself

What better way to celebrate the holiday season than to give some thought to scapegoats. We cope with the darkest time of the year by loading up undying “ever” green trees with a symbolic harvest of ornaments and lights that reassure us spring will bring more life. Unlike the greedy One Percent, Santa Claus delivers generous wish-fulfillment. In the Christian story a scapegoat is born who forgives everybody.

The idea of the scapegoat is an astounding psychological tool for managing morale. Humans have been persecuting “enemies” for ages. It’s how we’re built. You feel guilty or ashamed or merely inadequate, and your group helps you to blame yourself. So you find a scapegoat to carry off the bad qualities in yourself. You may speed up the process by helping the scapegoat suffer and die. Perhaps the whole group lends a hand.

A scapegoat, then, is a tool for taming or expelling self-hatred. From birth, we want to be better than average. Society rewards heroes and stars. But it’s a treacherous dream. If everybody’s a star, then nobody is. And if you can’t be altogether perfect no matter how hard you try, you’re faulty. If self-esteem is ambivalent this way, it’s hard to respect the middle. This is why the Greeks recommended the “golden mean” to each other while fighting to the death to be heroes.

The historian Norman Cohn observes that Satan first popped up in the middle ages at a time when Christians were straining to emulate Christ. [1] As their expectations rose, so did their disappointment and even horror at their failings. To protect their self-esteem, they needed a scapegoat to account for their faults. And so “the Devil made me do it.” To punish Satan, they slaughtered “heathens,” “witches,” and of course each other.

Though the punishers were Christians, they couldn't see they were scapegoating. And so they couldn't resist the compulsion to punish someone else to preserve their belief in themselves. This is one of the monstrous ironies of history. One reason Christianity caught on in the ancient world is that it called for forgiveness for sinners and sympathy, even love, for the crucified sacred scapegoat.

I was thinking about this as I read Victor Klemperer’s diaries about surviving WW2 in Dresden as a (fired) German Jewish professor married to an “Aryan” wife (his term). Klemperer understood the cruelty of scapegoating, from the torment of relentless death-anxiety to humiliations meant to cancel out your self-worth. He was also wise enough to understand that some fellow scapegoats coped with terror by embracing Zionist dreams of a state safe for co-religionists of “pure blood”—a tragic caricature of the racism persecuting them. Somehow Klemperer and his wife kept their balance.

Klemperer’s daily ordeal records that as the Nazis’ terror of defeat and death increased, so did their urge to kill scapegoats, even when it diverted resources from the war effort. Like Primo Levi at Auschwitz, he records the niggling indignities—nakedness, freezing, hunger, roll-call rigamarole—that ground down self-worth. The sadistic pettiness makes sense if you see guards inflicting on prisoners the sadistic pettiness that Nazi command inflicted on them.

Conventional histories tie a neat bow around these horrors by emphasizing victimization and the delusions that seized Germans, especially defeated soldiers, after WW1. The “stab in the back” fantasy saved their self-esteem and rationalized the war’s futile slaughter by blaming Jews and other fantasy culprits. The obsessiveness and frenzy of this paranoia shows how hard the Nazis had to struggle to keep believing it.

In the book he was working on when he died, Ernest Becker saw a still deeper tragedy. [2] The potential for self-hatred is built into us. All of us.

The sadism of the Nazis, from their constipated meanness to stupendous atrocity, acted out their blind self-hatred.

What!? How could those arrogant blowhards hate themselves?

How could they not? They obsessed about self-justifying thousand-year glory, superhuman strength, immortal will. And of course in actual lives, it was all fairy tale. So the system invited you to take out your self-doubts on scapegoats. All that bombastic glory, futile sacrifice, and denial of moral reality made personal failings unbearable. Like jihadi terrorists today, consciously or not, self-hatred made Nazis feel victimized and enraged. And by the way, it destroyed them,

They couldn’t see their own compulsion to blame. They couldn’t forgive themselves or the world.

This is why sensible people feel anxious when they hear scapegoat themes in political campaign bombast. It’s a cognitive system. You run for the top (heroic) job by promising a more perfect future: deporting all problems, annihilating obstacles, commanding total self-reliance, etc. But the more fabulous your impossible (heroic) promises, the more inadequate the actual human expected to fulfill them. Aspire to be superhuman and sooner or later you feel like a phony and a failure. If you don't feel it—if you really believe you're superhuman—call 911 and ask for a ride.

If you doubt it, look at the evidence. Campaigning spurs visions of greatness—and vicious attacks on opponents. They’re scapegoats, and the exaggerated hostility toward them is a symbolic slaughter. [3] The overreachers discharge their own panic and self-disgust at others. And their followers thrill to be part of the hero’s symbolic rampage.


In the hiss and hangover of the holidays, as Americans ask Santa for more guns and dream of greatness, the secret password is Forgiveness.

Pass it on.

1. In Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons. 2. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil. 3. To appreciate the way everyday language disguises aggressive motives, see The Psychology of Abandon, which shows how terms in many areas of contemporary American culture— from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life—reveal terrifying yet also alluring fantasies of extraordinary power by overthrowing inhibitions.

About the Author
Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., is the author of The Psychology of Abandon. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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