Tag Archives: scapegoating

A Campaign of Mockery and Abuse

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of our public discourse.

We can easily trace the American penchant for latching on to conspiracies and fantasies back to the puritans, who sought to purify the society by casting out “witches.” The temptation to demonize groups and thereby convert our own problems and frustrations to an external source is woven deep into the American tapestry. McCarthyism set lose an even more destructive wave of fear feeding off of the vague threats posed by the rise of communist parties in the old Soviet Union, China and other sections of Southeast Asia.

Since then, Americans seem especially susceptible to finding secret and nefarious activities in African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Hispanic Americans, “liberal” college professors, secret societies, “the liberal media,” “Mexicans” Muslims, federal employees and the “deep state.”   These and other softened forms work as a kind of code. The mere mention in the presence of the right group—in both senses of that word–is enough to confirm the alleged threat, no evidence needed.  Defining a nation’s problems in terms of “outsiders” is not unique to the United States. We are just the leading example.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics.  But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of public rhetoric, partly through the conveyance of gleeful personal attacks using these terms.  He is his own touring circus of verbal abuse, for example, musing lightheartedly about a “liberal media” reporter recently shot in the leg, or a woman whose appearance is not up to his standard, or the bogus medical issues of opponents, or the “low ratings’ of opponents, who are supposed see that taunt as some kind of meaningful measure. And on it goes.

Most presidents have gently chided their political opponents, but they knew their mandate to cultivate inclusion was more important. And political liberals aren’t beyond finding their own demons. But none have allowed the world to be so completely shaped by an illusory museum of misfits that only exist mostly in the MAGA-fevered brain. The fact that so many supporters can tolerate this downward street fight naming is disappointing and ironic coming from a man who found ways long ago to stay far above the streets used by ordinary folks.

The Durability of Scapegoating

[We have a President who is shameless in shifting the blame for our national woes to everyone but himself. This is a human habit we all have from time to time.  But rarely has a national leader so consistently sought the rhetorical cover of some other group’s malfeasance.  Here’s one theory for it.] 

The master-critic Kenneth Burke was a great observer of our communication routines, and never more so than when he described the “scapegoat principle.”  For most of us working to understand why we say the things we do, this familiar rhetorical form is a frequent reminder of the psychological benefits of transferring guilt to others.

Burke noted that groups or individuals face two options when a decision or action didn’t turn out as well as they wished.  If we screwed up, we can accept responsibility and note with regret that our efforts failed to work out.  He called this the “mortification” option, as in “I thought I could fix the bad feeling between Bill and Fred, but I think I just made it worse.  I’m not very good at playing the role of mediator.”  But doing this, of course, carries no obvious rewards, and requires a certain degree of grace and humility.

So we usually opt for the second choice: we scapegoat the problem to others.  It’s easier to blame Bill or Fred because doing so is an act of personal redemption.  In this form our words are all too familiar: “Things are not going very well in my life right now and it’s her fault.”  Like a fast-acting pill, the shifting of unwanted effects to others lifts us from the burdens of self-examination. In Burke’s language, we have “cast out” the problem.  Perhaps this is why we have parents, pets, uncles, Republicans, socialists, college professors, Iranians, labor unions, members of Congress and in-laws.  We can feel better when we believe that others are worse.

Most forms of scapegoating have a familiar ring:

  • They have created the mess we’re in.”
  • “My life is not going well; I blame the Democrats.”
  • “True, I flunked the course.  But I had a lousy teacher.”
  • “We’d be a good organization if only we had different leadership.”
  • “The problem with America is that it has too many illegal immigrants.”

Tribes have always used sacrifices to purge the group of its problems. The usual victim was a four-legged animal that would be sacrificed to cleanse away problems usually caused by other humans. In the 21st Century we are less likely to round up a hapless critter for this ritual “casting out” of guilt. Instead, we usually pick a plausible member of our own species and simply attribute our problems to them. Think of internet trolls and their venom.  Anonymous comments online represent a perpetual Lourdes of guilt transference.

It would be nice if we could chalk up this human habit as but a small foible in the species. But the consequences of blaming others can’t be so easily dismissed. It’s worth remembering that Hitler’s murderous purge of supposed “non-Aryans” from German society—first with words and later with death camps–was fresh in Burke’s mind when he summarized the scapegoating principle.