A scapegoat is a person or group who gets unfairly blamed for the wrongdoings, misdeeds, or crimes of others. Scapegoating is the act of doing this to someone.
The term comes originally from the Bible, in a story from Leviticus where a Jewish chief priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on a goat before releasing it into the wilderness. The goat psychologically cleansed the bad deeds of the population, serving as a convenient mechanism for group healing.
The modern scapegoat
In contemporary times the scapegoat metaphor is used to describe situations where a guilty party gets away scot-free by loudly and vociferously blaming an innocent “enemy” instead. This can be on a small scale like a workplace or a family, but it can also be on a larger scale within society — labelling entire groups or racial identities as “enemies” fictitiously and thus, dangerously.
Scapegoats have a close cousin in the political realm, in the “Us vs. Them” core dynamic of fascism. Fascists essentially pretend that only Outsiders are dangerous, because it gives anxious people the illusion of safety. This ideology increases the followers’ dependency on the in-group, to the point of hero worship or even cult worship.
The illusion of control
Scapegoating is often driven by prejudice and bigotry, fear, and a need to maintain the status quo. When people feel threatened, either by external factors such as economic or political instability or internal factors such as a sense of personal inadequacy, they may look for someone to blame. Scapegoating can provide a sense of control and empowerment, allowing people to believe that they are doing something to address the problem. However, this illusion of control comes at the cost of dehumanizing and harming others.
Scapegoating can have serious consequences for individuals and communities. The scapegoated individuals or groups can become marginalized, ostracized, and stigmatized. They can experience discrimination, harassment, and violence, both on a personal and group level. Moreover, scapegoating can distract attention from the real problems and prevent work towards constructive solutions. By focusing on blaming individuals or groups rather than addressing the root causes of problems, scapegoating can perpetuate injustice and inequality.
Dealing with scapegoating
Preventing scapegoating requires recognizing its underlying causes and addressing them. This can involve promoting empathy, understanding, and open communication, and fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility. It can also involve challenging the narratives that promote scapegoating and promoting a more nuanced understanding of complex issues, with less black and white thinking. Educating people about the dangers of scapegoating and the benefits of cooperation and collaboration can also help to prevent it.
Scapegoating is a harmful and unjust practice that involves blaming individuals or groups for the problems of a larger community. It can have serious consequences for the scapegoated individuals or groups and perpetuate injustice and inequality. Preventing scapegoating requires recognizing its underlying causes, promoting empathy and understanding, and challenging the narratives that promote it. By working together and taking responsibility for our collective well-being, there’s no reason why we can’t build a more just and equitable society.