When it comes to interpersonal conflict, humans have long preferred to blame other individuals or groups rather than look at their own behavior. Social psychologists call this scapegoating. Scapegoating is when an individual or group selects another person or group to bear the responsibility of a conflict – a conflict that at least one other person besides the accused bears responsibility for. The person or group who is blamed is the scapegoat.
History is practically written by a narrative of scapegoating. In the Torah, it is said that men who engage in homosexual behavior should be stoned to death. In the late seventeenth century, some locals in colonial Massachusetts didn’t want to settle political and religious differences, so when a few people started acting out, they were labeled as witches and hung to death. And of course, survivors of sexual assault are frequently branded at fault by systems of power.
Some people wonder how we could be so fatally blind, but the chilling truth is that in each of these examples, the people who blamed the scapegoat genuinely believed the ‘scapegoat’ was wrong and deserved punishment. Invariably, when we hear about these instances, our own reactions are outrage. “How could someone do such a thing? Surely, we would know better than those people.”
The thing is, our outrage at scapegoating often contains an assumption – that the perpetrators intentionally blamed or targeted the scapegoat. Thus, they are bad, and we are good. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and we’re all a lot more guilty of similar scapegoating dynamics than we’d like to acknowledge.
WHY DOES SCAPEGOATING HAPPEN?
Scapegoating happens for a lot of reasons, but the most common reason might be because those who scapegoat experience psychological relief when someone else besides them gets blamed.
People generally don’t enjoy feeling internal conflict. The discomfort of internal conflict propels people to abuse substances, use sex in unhealthy ways, surf the internet for hours, and act out against other people through physical violence or interpersonal abuse. Essentially, there is either a lack of awareness of one’s internal conflict or an outright denial of it.
It often feels easier to find someone else to direct our conflictual feelings toward and even have others join us in seeing them as the problem, because when someone else is the problem (not us, of course), we no longer have to consider the possibility of emotional conflict within ourselves. After all, the problem is “out there.”
Why do some families disguise child abuse as a response to problematic behavior? How does a child become “the bad one?” It is often the case that a family’s acknowledgment of abuse in the household would mean that the perpetrator is not really the all-good quintessential figure that everyone has convinced themselves of.
Seeing someone as not being all good, but rather as a combination of good and bad, can feel threatening – especially when that someone is a person who others rely on for survival. Thus, the family unconsciously construes the child as “the problem.” Such unspoken politics of an abusive family serve to protect a majority at the sacrifice of one.
Why do workplace organizations with high conflict always seem to single out one person and say that they’re a problem? The problem person – the scapegoat – serves as a kind of container for all of the unwanted feelings the other employees have about the organization.
By focusing on and ultimately getting rid of the scapegoat, an organization temporarily escapes having to face the reality of what is happening within the organization, until the scapegoat is gone and the process begins all over again with someone else. In this way, systems also avoid internal conflict.
Essentially, facing reality in group situations such as families and the workplace feels threatening. Facing reality means acknowledging truths. What makes individuals and groups select scapegoats instead of facing reality is because people fear letting go of the stories and identities they held onto during the scapegoating process. In most cases, these stories and identities are constructed unconsciously, not maliciously. Individuals and groups actually believe that they are right and the scapegoat is the problem, just as people believed there were witches who needed to be hung.
HOW ARE SCAPEGOATS SELECTED?
There are a number of theories out there about how scapegoats are ultimately selected, though all of these theories appear to suggest that it’s an unconscious process. Rene Girard was an anthropological philosopher who wrote extensively about scapegoating as inevitable to human culture. Scapegoating promotes group cohesion by allowing group members to refocus their attention toward the scapegoat and away from the larger problem extant in their culture, tribe, or system.
It makes sense then that the person who falls into the scapegoat role would typically be the person who is the least like the in-group members who seek cohesion and conformity among each other. After all, one of the functions of conformity and cohesion in groups is survival, and outsiders who demonstrate difference from the group that doesn’t serve the group may be considered a threat.
Some people also believe that scapegoats are self-selected – that individuals who function in the scapegoat role may consciously or unconsciously assume the role of being ‘the bad one’. This angle is a profoundly complex one to explain in one article. Sometimes certain roles become familiar to people and they unconsciously repeat their relationship pattern with others. Unfortunately, there is no one or simple explanation for how this process comes to be – only that it does, and it can be understood better through personal therapy to protect the self against revictimization.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It depends on who you ask. Some would say that because scapegoating is inevitable to human culture that nothing can be done to stop scapegoating from happening. Others suggest that to stop violence we must treat others how we wish to be treated ourselves – the golden rule.
Once the scapegoating process begins, it is incredibly hard to obviate its progression since particular roles have already been assumed by those involved. Attempting to raise awareness of the scapegoating process among those who are in the majority group and working against the scapegoat is often not only ineffective, it can make matters worse.
Individuals and groups are generally resistant to developing awareness that they are unconsciously projecting onto another person. Even when perpetrators do have some semblance of self-awareness and realize their role in the scapegoating process, they may feel hesitant to assume a new role that either differs from the majority group and/or positions them in the scapegoat role.
Only a quick glance at history is needed to reveal the chilling truth that humans prefer to scapegoat and save face than to sit with their own stuff. This doesn’t necessarily make some people “bad” and other people “good,” but scapegoating does illustrate how complex human psychology can be. Ultimately, scapegoating cannot cease to exist as long as people continue to have minds that cannot tolerate internal conflict.
For all the technological progress humans have made, the progress of our social dynamics has not advanced nearly as steadily.