The thrill of blaming others

We've always loved scapegoats, in politics and our own lives. Now science offers a new glimpse into its appeal

Published January 29, 2012 10:00PM (EST)

This article is an adapted excerpt from the upcoming book "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," available Feb. 2 from Duckworth Overlook.

The ritual of the scapegoat goes back right to the beginning of mankind. Every early culture had ceremonies in which they removed sin from the community. These varied greatly, but one thing was constant – the idea that sin was a definite entity that could be transferred from being to being, or object, and that wrongdoing could be washed away. As a species, we’re obsessed by purity. All belief systems are not just devices we use to make sense of the world, they allow us to hope that we can return to a state of innocence. The ancients believed that spirits surrounded us, residing in plants, rocks and animals. The Romans had their sacred groves, while the Arabs thought the desert to be populated by the jinn. A widespread confusion between the physical and the mental led to a firm belief in the transmission of evil. In "The Golden Bough" Sir James Frazer describes many examples of this from all over the world.

In the East Indian Islands, the inhabitants thought a malign spirit could be channeled into leaves which were held against the patient, then thrown away. In China, kites were used to spirit sickness away; in the Aleutian Islands it was weeds. In Indonesia, villagers built little boats to carry away their demons. In India they buried their sins in a jar, which any unwary passer-by could stumble upon, like an unwitting Pandora (there was little concern with what subsequently happened to the expelled evil). In the Himalayas dogs were stoned to death to expiate sin; Iroquois Indians painted and decorated their oldest friends; in Scotland the dogs merely got chased. In India and Egypt cows were the animal of choice. And so on. All of this is a logical step towards transferring evil to another human.

Human scapegoats came to be used more frequently in time. The animals that were sacrificed as scapegoats were usually of high value, but their human counterparts tended to be society’s marginal figures – criminals or the disabled. Sometimes they could be priests, whose holy status protected them from this contact with evil. Or they could be actors who were paid for their duties and the risks they took on. These scapegoats were used either as part of a regular ceremony or in the aftermath of disaster. Some cultures had ceremonies in which the scapegoat was dressed in fine robes and led through the crowds as they cast their sins upon him. He would then be driven out of the village and stoned, or thrown into a river or off a cliff, thus carrying away all the people’s ills.

This method of removing sin has evolved over the centuries. What was once an ancient expiatory ritual, aimed at deflecting the wrath of the gods and cleansing a society, has mutated into a method by which rulers can channel the anger of their subjects away from themselves and onto some poor unfortunate. Over time the term "scapegoat" has come to refer to any group or individual on whom falls the outpouring of anger and blame following disaster. There are essentially two types of modern or post-ritual scapegoats: those created unconsciously, as an expression of our rage and incomprehension, in whose guilt everyone believes; and those created as a conscious act, by those seeking to deflect blame away from themselves. The unconscious ones came first, and existed the moment disaster struck. But in time it became a conscious process – as conscious as the ancient rituals, but lacking the sense of theatre and the acknowledgement that the victim was just that, a victim.

Scapegoating is suddenly no longer a ritual act, but a behavioural pattern; no longer a way of safeguarding a community, but instead one that protects one or two people. Every time there is a catastrophic event the majority finds a minority to blame. Sometimes it happens almost organically, at others the mob is steered towards its victim by the king.

In the twenty-first century, we are faced with more choice than ever before – in what we believe, in what we eat, in everything we do. Similarly we have a greater range of things to blame when things go wrong. Whereas our ancestors had to content themselves with the perennial scapegoats – namely women, Jews and certain animals – we are able to apportion blame in ever more imaginative ways for the aspects of our lives and ourselves that disappoint us. The one thing we will not do under any circumstances is accept ourselves as we are. We prefer to find an explanation for why things are not perfect, and these rarely stand up to close scrutiny.

For the wider malaise that affects us all, there are dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories, all rooted in the idea that some shadowy force is to blame – whether it be the Freemasons, the Illuminati or giant lizards; Communists, Jews or Catholics. For our individual problems, we have endless possible explanations; whole industries have sprung up to provide more authoritative ones. Blame has gradually become a product, to be bought and sold like any other. And those who trade in it have tended to become extraordinarily successful.

The relationship between the blamer and the blamed is a complex one. Really, the opposite of the prince is not the pauper, it is the scapegoat. As we will see later, the ruler creates the scapegoat so he doesn’t share his fate. We like to have our hate figures, just as we like to have leaders (though we tend to loathe them both equally). They are inextricably linked, reverse sides of a coin, one the shadow of the other – much in the way God and the Devil are in Christianity. The basic rule is as follows: the more a leader promises, the more he or she will subsequently have to apportion blame. Once we thought our kings were divine and therefore infallible, that disaster had to be the fault of another. These days we elect our leaders on the back of unrealistic promises which we choose to believe. They fail in these and we replace our leaders rather than overhaul the system, which resists change. And so the cycle of promise and blame begins all over again.

But in today’s political culture of spin, modern leaders are less ready than ever to admit fallibility. The phrase ‘mistakes were made …’ has entered the political lexicon, as the most passive and detached way of acknowledging error, rather than responsibility. It has been a particular favourite of twentieth-century American politicians, from Nixon and Kissinger to Reagan and Clinton. These three words were used repeatedly by Republicans in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

This brings us to the most dangerous use of scapegoats – the blaming of certain individuals to give governments the freedom to act in certain ways. This is an age-old strategy, and, most recently, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were all similarly demonized. The latter was used to prove a non-existent link between the first two, giving the American public the sense of a greater threat against them than in fact existed, and justifying the use of military force in Iraq. As one can see, the urge to blame is sometimes incited in us, and this form of demonization has been employed for centuries.

In 2007, the world entered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It had been caused by the bursting of the American housing bubble, leading to the spectacular collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The fallout was global, and saw plenty of scapegoats targeted – from rich bankers and their bonuses, to short-selling hedge fund managers thought to have profited from the downturn, and chief executives whose self-interested, rash decisions led to this calamity. How much easier it is to attribute responsibility to them, rather than face the truth of our own involvement. The notion of collective responsibility is one that we prefer not to engage with. Only those who were financially very prudent can exempt themselves from blame. The rest of us were happy to run up more debt than could be sustained for long by a banking system that depends, like so much of institutional life and commerce, on public confidence. This debt was parceled up and reshaped in a way that, for a while, concealed its origins. But ultimately it choked the system. And we shrieked at the likes of Fred Goodwin, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, blaming him for what we had lost. He was criticized for excessive spending and labelled ‘the world’s worst banker’ after RBS posted an annual loss of £24.1bn, the largest in UK corporate history. As details of his pension emerged, his house was vandalized, as the public sought redress.

There are many theories as to why we have this urge to blame, and all we can be certain about it is that it is an intrinsic part of our being. We used to scapegoat out of fear of divine retribution; now for the most part we do it to live with ourselves. As individuals, we create a narrative of our lives that makes sense to us, and that fits in with our concept of ourselves. Often we shape our memories accordingly. Certainly we keep some and subconsciously discard those that do not fit, demonstrating what psychologists call confirmation bias. We can find ourselves using our brains more to construct explanations and excuses once we’ve done what our emotions dictated, so we can pretend to ourselves that we are rational beings. But we aren’t wholly rational beings, as a succession of thinkers and experiments have showed.

We possess a strong self-serving bias that makes us feel special. Through this we can account for our failures and protect our sense of worth. We overrate our abilities in all sorts of ways, from intelligence to honesty. Research has shown that we all think ourselves better drivers than the norm. Likewise, we are inclined to think that we are more sensitive, loyal and in possession of a better sense of humour than others. This is particularly prevalent among men, who see themselves as 5 IQ points cleverer than they are, according to psychologist Adrian Furnham.

Australians suffer from the same misplaced confidence – 86 per cent of them rate themselves as above average in their performance at work. But we cannot all be excellent drivers, or else there would be no accidents. We can’t all be above average like in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon community; the laws of maths and nature ensure that some of us are below average. But we are inclined to believe that we are all special, that we’re somehow different and ‘it won’t happen to us’, leading us to take risks. With this capacity for self-delusion it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that we seek to blame others. The idea of Attribution Theory states that we have an urgent need to find reasons for an event, and this leads us to leap to conclusions and hold others responsible. A bad situation couldn’t possibly be our fault, after all. When we fail at things it is because of others; those who are below average bring us down. Whereas when we succeed it is due to our innate abilities (and when others succeed, we often put it down to luck).

We develop this ability to blame very early on in life. Just as children naturally express their unhappiness through tears and sobbing – designed to tell adults swiftly that something is wrong – so they, faced with the possibility of adult sanction for their actions, are quick to pass responsibility onto someone else, and quickly learn to use language to achieve this. ‘He started it’ is a familiar refrain in domestic life. As we move towards adulthood we should shed this defence mechanism, but really we only start to use it more.

On an everyday level we blame others to reduce cognitive dissonance – this is the state of tension that arises when we hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously (according to Plato, when desire conflicts with reason there is a disease of the soul, which is not so different from the concept of cognitive dissonance). Most of us have an innate sense of ourselves as decent people, and every bit of evidence to the contrary causes us pain and discomfort. We mitigate these feelings in a variety of ways. If we admit to having behaved badly, we might excuse this behaviour by saying ‘it was the drink’. We might say ‘I wasn’t myself’. Or we could straightforwardly blame another. In a failing relationship, couples often find themselves blaming each other for their unhappiness. With infidelity, the wronged person often finds her/himself blaming the other woman/man for their partner’s betrayal, allowing them to preserve their relationship – on the surface at least.

We like to personify our pain, to find one person to embody it. And so we can convince ourselves that everything would be much better if they were in our lives (as with unrequited love) or out of our lives (as with a scapegoat). But in reality it’s a lot more complex than that. Ultimately, we make scapegoats out of those we have come to believe are incapable of suffering – we dehumanize them, making them easier to hate. We create the idea that these other people are inferior to us. That develops into the idea that they therefore deserve their treatment. We deny them the same capacities for thought, emotion and values as us, and treat them accordingly. We can do this consciously or unconsciously, but the results are the same.

To see how innate this instinct is to us we can refer to Jungian psychology. Jung may not be widely followed these days but his ideas are interesting and relevant to the concept of the scapegoat. He believed that we all share the archetype of the shadow – the innate psychic structure that personifies everything we will not acknowledge about ourselves. It is the archetype of the enemy and is with us from birth; as infants we will greet our mothers with joy, while we recoil from strangers with fear and caution. We deny the existence of the shadow, and instead project its characteristics onto others, allowing us to preserve our own sense of goodness. Jung believed that there are several layers to the shadow, the top ones being unique to the individual, qualities that he or she repressed. But the bottom layer is a collective one. And it is that that has been successfully exploited in instances of mass scapegoating. By recognizing our own shadow, we make it less likely that we will project it onto others.

Reprinted with permission from Duckworth Overlook © Charlie Campbell, “Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People.”

By Charlie Campbell

Charlie Campbell is a graduate of University College London and was previously Deputy Editor of the Literary Review, where he ran the Bad Sex in Fiction Prize among other things. He was born in London, grew up in Paris and now lives in London again. He is currently at work on his next book.

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