Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others

“The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.”
–  Aung San Suu Kyi –

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We find our Scapegoats at a young age.

Her name was Helen. She wore glasses that were too big for her face. Her school skirt nearly touched her ankles. She smelt of mothballs. She was the perfect playground scapegoat. And we all reminded her of her role everyday. Our need to deflect from our own anger, guilt, aggression, rejection, and project it on someone else, starts very early in our life. In fact, it seems like we have a genetic human default of wanting to blame someone or something else for the angst we carry as vulnerable
humans.

History eagerly awaits to be summoned and reveal its countless files on scapegoats. Animals often wore the brunt of the blame game. The early pilgrims to the USA brought a religious superstition to its shores that
resulted in wariness of anything not defined in their worldview. Black cats were among their targets in looking for explanations for disasters. Unfortunately, this irrational belief lingers to this day as black cats are five times more likely to be euthanised and continue to be subjected to horrendous abuse. Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked and pigs killed by Sunni Muslims who blamed the pigs and the Christian farmers for spreading the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 (a pointless carnage). And, of course, then there’s Mrs. O’Leary’s famous scapegoat cow who was blamed for the Great Chicago Fires.

Charlie Campbell’s excellent book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, devotes a great deal of attention to the scapegoating of women throughout history. He contends that the witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe were mainly motivated by men’s fear and hatred of women. Scapegoating women is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Alexis Carrel blamed the shambles and ageing of a post World War I France on women, for they had “ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race.” The Spanish Civil war was blamed on women whose “vaginas had given birth to republican filth.” From the Laws of Manu to early Christian apologists like Tertullian to the Buddhist thinker Santideva, men found solace in blaming women for their desires. Women were called evil and confined to the home, as
society needed to be protected. Jack Holland in his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice argues that women are the universal scapegoat of history.

History is littered with notorious individual scapegoats like the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, or the Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, or Hitler’s Party Leader, Rudolf Hess, or the tragic figure of Gaëtan Dugas (Patient Zero). Then there are the minority groups that become the scapegoats for community ignorance, religious beliefs, or fear: the Albino children in Africa, the LGBTIQ community, Jews, Palestinians, and perhaps in modern Australian history nothing exemplifies the scapegoating of minority groups more perfectly than the consistent
slandering of refugees by political power puppets. All of this to say that us humans have never had a problem of finding someone to blame!

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We often tend to think of scapegoating as something that happens outside our family of origin. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many  people who will tell their stories of being picked on and
excluded from the people who were meant to love and care for them. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems they cannot face. Blaming a vulnerable family member can be the practice, for
example, of a parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The child, or scapegoat, is the one who wears their
frustrations, aggression and hatred, as they unite the rest of the family against the one being attacked. If you have been a family scapegoat there is no sugar-coating it: you have been abused. This is not ok! Please consider the effect it has had on your life. Perhaps it is time to say “No More” to the bullies?

Sadly, religious institutions are not immune from scapegoating. The ‘God of Wrath and Judgement’ is keenly at work in the minds of some
religious leaders, zapping anyone who does not agree with that leader’s
interpretation of the Sacred Text. I think the fairly modern flavours of Christian Fundamentalism and biblicism, that have permeated some faith communities, have contributed to the fervency devoted to scapegoat hunting. When adherence to a certain code of beliefs and behaviour is the litmus test to achieve belonging and affirmation, then it is fairly easy to find a scapegoat that is not living up to the ’standards of holiness’. Blaming another for our own existential angst and catastrophes is nothing new. Hear the echoes of the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, if we can convince the rest of our social tribe that God also blames them, then the dehumanising has even greater repercussions for the damned scapegoats.

A month ago, many people around the world celebrated one of the most significant events of the Christian Liturgical Year: Easter. We reflected on the Passion of the Christ: The Innocent One, without any guilt, who breaks the mythical cycle of human superstitious violence. The scapegoat becomes the Lamb of God. With his brutal death, “the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of superstition, politics, and ideologies” are exposed. “It is finished,” is the Gospel declaration of a Kingdom that is not of this world and has put an end to scapegoating. The unjust slaying of Christ reveals the foundation of a culture built on murder and a lie. Jesus, knowing we are mimetic creatures, calls us to follow his footsteps on the path of peace. It is time to lay aside the scapegoat. It is time to face our own souls.

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5 thoughts on “Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others”

  1. We can see the nature of scapegoating in the first humans ever created. When confronted with their own sin each one blames another… Gen. 3:12-13 Adam: This woman You gave me made me do it… Eve: The devil made me do it…. not much has changed! Maybe original sin is a bit more complex than we think. Not only disobeyed/distrust God but also tried to blame someone else when confronted with the problem… just a few thoughts ☺

  2. Great article great comments Fi.
    Really enjoyed this – poor Helen. I feel for her.

  3. This is good – almost uncanny how similar it is to current trains of thought in my own life.

    I believe it was Hans Ruesch’s book ‘Slaughter of the Innocent’ that discussed the strange phenomenon that cats are a favourite subject of the most violent and cruel forms of vivisection (science experiments performed on live creatures), and how that links back to medieval religious superstitions.

    To zero in on one point, learning about narcissistic personality disorder was a breakthrough moment for me. A year ago I stumbled across a reference to it on a feminist website and noticed with growing shock that the experiences other women described with their NPD family was almost identical to my own experiences over the last decade. I can’t share identifying details but suffice to say it’s been a living hell. I can testify that it is life-destroying being the scapegoat for a religiously-inclined narc. I’m the one stuck getting psychotherapy to repair the damage while the narc goes on undiagnosed and unchallenged to do anything about it. (As my own psychologist told me, NPD is one of the worst conditions to diagnose because NPD patients are extremely difficult to help.)

    A common thread on NPD victims support groups is how toxic Christianity becomes in the hands of a narc. Pentecostalism in particular seems to give a narc the space to be extra-special because they can hear from God and speak on His behalf.

    They also seem to like legitimating violent and punitive forms of child rearing, which of course are widely promoted in fundie-Pente communities as “raising kids God’s way”. Certain types of Christian ‘education’ are a great place to scapegoat children, too. The Leaving Fundamentalism blog on Patheos has been really good for me to learn more about why some of my ex-Christian friends & family are so traumatised at the mere mention of school.

    Thank you so much for writing this blog because there will be people out there who, like me, have been convinced they’re irredeemably bad and they need to know it was not their fault. They got caught in a predictable social role and the good news is that help is available for those needing to escape. (Sorry for the long comment… I tend to write too much about these topics on my own blog, too!)

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and helpful comment, Fi. I think your observation about religious-inclines narc personalities is very poignant. When a disorder is disguised in religious garments the abuse becomes so devious as it has the “God Factor” attached to it. I think we will see a lot more research/writing on this subject in the future.

      1. I hope more research will be done, too. With the increasing awareness of religiously radicalised people engaging in terrorism, there will hopefully be more studies done to explore how fundamentalism operates.

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