Those whom we love to hate

Scapegoats
May 10, 1996

It was William Tyndale, the first English translator of the Bible, who coined the word "scapegoat", derived from the custom of ancient societies, like the Greeks and Hebrews, of driving a goat into the wilderness, thus making it (e)scape. The goat was not merely a placatory offering to the gods, it bore with it the sins and evils of the community. In time, it was decided that a goat was too small an offering and a person was substituted. Indeed, the ancient Greeks kept a supply of appropriate scapegoats, citizens who were ugly, deformed, or criminal.

Tom Douglas provides a brief history of scapegoating, but of more importance he investigates the rationale for this ubiquitous practice. Nowadays, we no longer placate the gods, but scapegoating of two different kinds continues. First, the scapegoat is consciously chosen to shift blame to someone else, as in the case of the French scientists recently prosecuted for the provision of HIV-infected blood in order to absolve the French government, which was as averse to foreign blood as to foreign languages (my own example). Second, scapegoats are chosen, usually unconsciously, when a group's internal tensions run high in order to discharge them on the scapegoat, who is usually someone different from the rest of the group. Such scapegoating keeps the group together: one of the greatest bonds between people is the existence of a common foe. Whole groups of people may become scapegoats - the Nazis persecuted the Jews and in the United States today alleged child abusers are hunted down by psychologists with the same ferocity as witches in the old days.

When things go wrong, whether in business or battle, people, as Douglas points out, demand an explanation. Moreover, revenge is still one of the most powerful human motives - the criminal must be caught and punished if only to appease the injured: the police are under pressure to convict someone even if it is the wrong person. Was Nick Leeson thrown to the wolves to exculpate the top brass at Barings? Was Wavell dismissed in the western desert to disguise the wretched armaments of the Eighth Army? Douglas does not mention let alone discuss such cases, perhaps wisely for in public affairs it is almost impossible to discover the truth. Instead his analysis is based almost entirely on research on the family and on personal growth groups, the PC term for what used to be called with more accuracy encounter groups.

He is particularly good on unconscious scapegoating. By choosing a scapegoat the anger of other members of the group is deflected away from one another; blaming the scapegoat protects their own self-esteem and they are able to discharge their tensions without breaking up the group. The scapegoats themselves, apart from being deviant members of the group, are usually too feeble to defend themselves and - interestingly - are often people who invite scapegoating because they seek the attention it provides.

The book contains a few errors: Prometheus was savaged not by a mere raven but by Zeus's eagle, and the "authoritarian character" was debunked many years ago; the traits said to constitute it simply do not go together.

But these are minor matters. Scapegoats is a shrewd and agreeably written book on an important but under-investigated topic. For once the blurb is too modest - "Scapegoats will be an invaluable resource for anyone engaged in group work". Nonsense: it should be read by everyone with an interest in society or a concern about their relations with others.

Stuart Sutherland is emeritus professor of experimental psychology, University of Sussex.

Scapegoats: Transferring Blame

Author - Tom Douglas
ISBN - 0 415 11018 1 and 11019 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 213

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