Scapegoating: Why We Blame Others for Our Problems

A sad consequence of the coronavirus is the attempt to blame others for it.

Posted May 18, 2020

Most of us have heard the rumors circulating blaming other societies and organizations for the development and spread of the COVID-19 virus. Some claim that Chinese officials knew more about the disease than they acknowledged, that they intentionally under-counted victims, and that they secretly sought to control global resources for protective equipment. Some even say the virus was a creation of Chinese scientists, perhaps for military use. 

Alternately, some have accused the World Health Organization of being too receptive to Chinese accounts of the pandemic and too slow in their management of a worldwide response. They have blamed the American media and scientific community for exaggerating the extent of the crisis. 

For their part, the Chinese government and media have floated a charge that the American military introduced the virus to their shores.

History will judge the veracity of such claims. For now, it is fair to say that ordinary citizens have not been immune to arguments of the above sort. There has been a spike in media articles, memes, and slurs targeting Asian-Americans since the outbreak began. There have been physical assaults on people of Asian descent.

Why do people attack others when they find themselves faced with complicated, stressful challenges?

This essay is about scapegoating: the psychological and social process of assigning blame to others for one’s own difficulties. Often those others are involved only peripherally in the problems at hand or, indeed, are not involved at all. Commonly, the accuser perceives them as weak, defenseless, or otherwise socially vulnerable. For that reason, it is easy to make them “bear the burden,” “take the fall,” or become the “sacrificial lamb.”

Scapegoating has distant origins in religious ceremonies. In Leviticus 16: 21-22, the Hebrews offer two forms of sacrifice. A drawing of lots determines separate fates for twin goats. One goat is prepared formally as a sacrificial offering. The other is loaded symbolically with all the sins of the community and driven into the wilderness, where it also will perish. That second idea, and the term itself, is the foundation of modern understandings of scapegoating. Somehow, individuals and communities feel cleansed, or at least shed of direct blame, by the punishment of less powerful individuals, selected from the margins of those communities.

World history teems with examples of this practice. During times of economic or political stress, European rulers routinely identified Jewish residents as sources of their region’s difficulties. The accused found themselves driven out, assaulted, dispossessed of property, or simply exterminated. The Holocaust is the infamous modern case. 

With a similar spirit, American leaders blamed people of Chinese ancestry for the economic recession in the 1880s. As employment became scarce, they vilified Chinese immigrants and denied them entry to this country for the following 70 years. Japanese-Americans were “interned” during World War II when those of German and Italian ancestry were not. More recently, Arab-Americans have felt the pain of social stigma. Indeed, it is the essence of being a minority that one finds himself accused of being a conspicuous example—and more than that, cause—of society’s failings.         

Why do society’s leaders and their followers turn on largely innocent people in this way? Anthropologist Marvin Harris, in a discussion of witchcraft accusations from the 15th through 17th centuries in Northern Europe, argues that vilification of this sort is an attempt to distract the broader population from the implications of disturbing social changes and, more specifically, from the corruption and incompetence of leaders. During this time in Europe, perhaps 500,000 people were accused and murdered for being witches. Typically, the victims were poor, old, female, and otherwise discreditable. They died so that others would not have to contemplate directly the vast changes of modernization that were happening around them.

John Dollard offers a related if different theory in his book, Caste and Class in a Southern Town. Studying patterns of discrimination, including assault and lynching, during the segregation era in Mississippi, Dollard attributed some of these to the frustrations of poverty and blocked opportunity experienced by poor whites. Periodically, that frustration expressed itself in forms of aggression, some of it collective and savage.  

Scapegoats were the safe targets, those who could not rely on the government to defend them. Pointedly, the upper classes did not attempt to prevent these outbursts or to punish them stringently. Indeed, they encouraged the white working classes to look below rather than above themselves for symbols of misbehavior.           

Readers may decide for themselves whether our current crisis features similar, though less extreme, patterns of distraction and vilification.

It is easier to spot scapegoating in others than in ourselves. However, most of us engage in blame-shifting. Consider some ordinary examples.

Let us say that we are having difficulties at our workplace; perhaps we even fear that we will be fired. We could blame the boss for this, but doing so openly would be dangerous indeed. Alternately, we could blame ourselves for not doing our best or for making a series of poor decisions. 

An easier course surely is to blame peripheral others, even family members. They have been distracting us with their problems, making claims on our time and attention. A family child is behaving badly in college; our dog bit someone; our spouse seems distracted and bitter; there is that neighbor with the noisy motorcycle next door. All of these may be legitimate concerns, but they are also convenient and safe dumping sites for frustrations that have their sources elsewhere.

Those of us who play or have played sports are familiar with scapegoating. Rare is the athlete who does not have extensive experience with losing. On such occasions, it is perhaps most appropriate to blame oneself for the failure (“I just didn’t perform my best”) or to attribute the outcome to the rival (”They were better than I was”).

A much easier course is to blame the referees. We lost, or so we claim, because of a series of bad calls. And that last one, when we were coming back near the end of the game, was a real killer. Without a doubt, referee judgments influence the outcome of close games. But employing this rhetoric of blame effectively keeps people from confronting the deeper sources of their difficulties.    

Again, there is nothing exceptional about these examples. There are times when most of us cannot acknowledge our own failings. We feel too vulnerable or brittle to do so. We fear the loss of face that would come from any public acknowledgment. Looking for someone or something else to blame, for surely there is a cause for what is happening, we turn on those who cannot easily confront our accusations. Indeed, they may not even know that we are accusing them.

To compound matters, we may engage in what psychologists call “projection,” where we impute to others unflattering characteristics that we worry about possessing ourselves. In that spirit, we accuse our presumed rival of being inferior, dirty, lazy, sneaky, and so forth. We claim that they hate us and that they are working to undermine our peace and security. All this to make ourselves feel more assured about our own qualities and life trajectory.

There is a much more general issue at stake here: Are we less sympathetic to other people—and especially to people we do not know well—than we are to ourselves?

Psychologists discuss this question in terms of what they call “attribution theory,” essentially an account of the procedures people use to explain things that have occurred, both to them and to others. Most people, or so attribution research indicates, account for their own behaviors differently than they do the behavior of others. If we slip on some ice, lose our job, or get an illness, we are inclined to see those difficulties as caused largely by external or situational factors (slippery sidewalk, mean boss, contagious co-workers). However, if we achieve something we want (such as a promotion at work or a sports victory), we commonly attribute that success to our own personal qualities. That pattern—of taking credit and shirking blame—is the “self-serving bias.”

Other people, or at least people we do not know or like, tend to get an opposite treatment. They slipped on the ice because they were clumsy, lost their job because they were inattentive, got sick because they were reckless. We may acknowledge their successes, but we also are quick to judge these as the result of cronyism, good timing, “kissing up,” and the like. The more distant they seem to us, the easier it is to demonize them.

Different again is our interpretation of those whom we do not know well, but whom we like. Think of a favorite politician, religious leader, or media figure. According to what is called the “confirmation bias,” we may disregard negative information about them or argue that they are victims of forces beyond their control. “Our guy” cannot possibly be responsible for the bad things that are happening now. For to acknowledge those failings would surely lower the level of our affection for him.

Most of us display these biases to some degree. We cheer for our favorites, relish their successes, and celebrate what we consider the positive personal qualities that produced those outcomes. By contrast, we take a certain pleasure in the slips and errors of those we have designated as villains, enemies, or fools. We attribute these misadventures to their personal shortcomings; whatever successes they achieve are simply happenstances. Most of all, we grant ourselves a more flexible, and generally sympathetic, pattern of interpretation. We take credit for many of our accomplishments and look elsewhere when glory fades.

In such ways, most of us try to maintain our idealized identities or at least try to keep moving in positive, self-managed directions. 

It is not the purpose of this essay to castigate us for our self-promotions and evasions. However, it is important that we call ourselves into question when we rely on these faulty attributions, not only because of the disservice they do for ourselves but also, and even more critically, for the harm they cause to others. Demonizing others is a willful retreat from the challenge of thinking seriously about the issues we face. We should expect a more forthright acknowledgment of right and wrong behaviors, both from ourselves and from our leaders.

References

Harris, M. (1989). Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.  New York: Random House.

Dollard, J. (1989). Caste and Class in a Southern Town.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.