The Scapegoat Instinct
“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
Blaming others is easy. You transfer responsibility to someone else for what went wrong, and without much effort on your part, other voices in the crowd will start following your lead. With social media, the act of scapegoating has become ubiquitous. There is now always a figurehead taking heat from the crowd, whether a celebrity or politician or even a regular person who said or did something offensive.
‘Scapegoating’ alludes to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.
The philosopher Rene Girard wrote about Mimetic Theory, a theory to explain all human conflict, a mechanism that could apply to primordial and modern times, and had no geographical boundaries. And the idea was not very complicated. Human beings don’t know what goals they should set for themselves, so they copy each other. When enough individuals desire the same object, a conflict emerges, because what is being desired has now become scarce relative to demand. You can think of this object as a natural resource, money, or a person. To resolve this conflict, someone must be sacrificed.
You can quickly see two problems that need to be resolved. 1) People should stop desiring the same things. 2) Human sacrifice should not be the solution.
Girard tells us that Christianity rendered the scapegoat phenomenon as morally reprehensible. That is why, today, to blame someone is not considered heroic but juvenile, when the true culprit is not one individual, but a series of causes and effects that cannot be traced to a single source.
It’s not only individuals that are scapegoated. Groups can be too. If you think as nations as super-organisms, then the world is made out of many different individual super-organisms. And when they interact, they follow many of the same patterns as individual humans within groups. Countries, races, and large groups of people are blamed for global events such as terrorism or a pandemic.
“I believe that one of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective.” Stephen Fry
The people who have managed to pry their way out of a dire situation had to believe that it was in their capacity to do so. But if they had shifted responsibility away from themselves – they would have never done anything at all. Blaming others doesn’t finish your projects for you, and it won’t make you more competent. The less of a victim you see yourself as, the less of one you become.
But this doesn’t mean that the blame has no pragmatic basis. It may be true that an individual is truly to blame, and the only way to create incentive for better behavior in the future is to punish this individual. Imagine a corrupt central banker makes a series of moves that harm his country. If these financial policies were irresponsible, then he should be held accountable, otherwise, his successor could make the same mistake.
In ancient Babylon, Hamurabi’s law that ensured symmetry when it came to punishment for incompetence. If an incompetent engineer built a house that had a bad roof, he must bear responsibility for his lack of attention.
If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
There is a different more important kind of success that comes with refusing to blame others. It involves mastering your perceptions, taking command of your otherwise weak inclinations. This is something a few individuals can do, but it is hard to make it a social rule. This is why Girard emphasized the role of Judaism and Christianity in curtailing the scapegoat mechanism. Forgiveness is divine because it requires people to go beyond pragmatism and reason.
And notice that Christianity does it in two ways, and they relate to the two problems that I mentioned above, 1) that people desire the same things and 2) that people find a scapegoat when they don’t get what they want.
On one hand, it removes the incentive for wealth. Christianity is not unique in doing this, of course. Stoicism and Buddhism are two systems of thought that cautioned people against the desire of wealth (a potential source of conflict) as well as lust and pleasure.
The second problem is mitigated with forgiveness. Christ is given as the archetypal example of forgiveness. He was betrayed by those closest to him, and punished by his society. He healed the sick and helped the poor, but he was tortured on the cross, alongside criminals. and yet, he forgave.