If we observe social structures, it seems that most of them have sacrificial characters. In the modern era, the scapegoat is the person or subculture that is conjured up to bear the blame for the shortcomings of everyone else.
In the Judeo-Christian context it was the goat over which head Aaron confessed the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement. The animal, bearing their faults, was let loose into the wilderness.
The practice of scapegoating has become much more common in these days of pointing the finger of blame at immigrants, racial minorities, women, and the LGBT community. It is often the process of negatively characterizing an entire group as being unethical or immoral because of bad behavior by a few individuals belonging to that group. This tool relates to assigning guilt by association and stereotyping.
“My classmates could see I was not similar. So they made me their scapegoat. They hit me or locked me in the toilets. During the break, I would take refuge in the chapel, or I would arrange to stay alone in the classroom.”–Yves Saint Laurent
The dominant mindset of those who set up the sacrificial peer rarely consider the evil of their own ways. It appears that true values of empathy, charity, acceptance, and ethics are short-circuited. To condone scapegoating is to participate in spiritual-mental crowd violence. The individual or group becomes popular society’s patsy. One by one, people deny their consciences and get on the bandwagon shaming the scapegoat.
When scapegoating is governmental or religiously advocated, the victimizing of the targeted minority becomes chronic. Socially acceptable sacrificing of “the other” is easy, reflexive, and mindless. Political and religious leaders exploit the fear and desperation of the masses by blaming out-groups for the faults of society-at-large. This irrational fear is at the heart of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and jingoism.
Scapegoating is a symptom of the tyranny of the majority. This occurs when the majority group takes away the rights of the targeted minorities–in extreme cases, orders the minorities to be executed. We see this tyranny of the majority taking place in such places as Iran where gays have been scapegoated and are publicly hanged. These horrific crimes against humanity are often committed in the name of “interest of the majority”, but not necessarily the population as a whole.
Such scapegoating sends a message that the general population must obey the leaders. Scapegoating’s effectiveness has been proven throughout the ages, this is one reason why it is so insidious. The evil of tyranny of the majority was understood well by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. The authors recognized the tendency of a majority to infringe on the rights of minorities necessitated the Bill of Rights. In later years, many of the other Constitutional Amendments were created with further protecting minority rights against the tyranny of the majority, in mind.
They sought to circumvent this social weak-point of democracy by ensuring that minorities will have legal recourse. The various civil-rights movements that have taken place in the United States and abroad are further push-backs against the tyranny of the majority.
One of the worst cases of tyranny of the majority was present in the governance of Ancient Rome. The majority ruled by severely punishing minority groups. Members of minorities and newly conquered nations were frequently used as gladiators and sacrificial lambs for entertainment. The idea was to promote the idea that Romans were the “true” civilized people and they should not concern themselves with the treatment and fate of the minorities.
Another worst-case instance of tyranny of the majority was fascist rule of Germany and other Axis powers in the 1930s into the 1940s. Scapegoats were sent to labor and death camps. We might see such primitive, barbaric governance as rule by terrorism.
While such extreme scapegoating is no longer present in modern, democratically governed countries, we find examples of scapegoats being exploited in under-developed countries and anti-democratic movements because scapegoating can quickly run out of control and become mob-rule. There are many instances in which populism crosses over the line into demagoguery. Leaders and spokespersons make things up out of whole cloth. They accuse minorities of shortcomings that are not true, fair, or justifiable. The lies become chronic and very dangerous to the scapegoated communities. Ultimately, civilized society,itself, becomes endangered.
We need to be aware of the dangers of scapegoating in this day and age of divisiveness and outrage. It is important to remain calm and exercise careful discernment as we live as citizens of the world.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes film/television producer Edward Zwick. “I think it’s too easy often to find a villain out of the headlines and then to repeat that villainy again and again. You know, traditionally, America has always looked to scapegoat someone as the boogie man.”