Tag Archives: scapegoating

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.

Celebrating Division

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves.

There was a very small item recently in the New York Times about the online ridicule faced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was asked about his favorite kind of bagel.  Stating a preference about any New York icon is bound to produce second-guessing from those who want to parade their bonafides.  So, without missing a beat the press reported on the Twitter guffaws created by the Mayor’s expressed preference for a toasted whole wheat bagel from a Brooklyn bakery.  The infraction that brought out the smirks?  Apparently an authentic New Yorker never toasts a bagel.  It apparently sounds like what people might do in Boston, where de Blasio grew up.  To some, it’s almost as bad as eating pizza with a knife and fork, another supposed faux pas committed by the Mayor a few years ago.

The bagel kerfuffle is obviously a non-story.  And one can only guess that the Times was facing a light news day.  But there’s a lesson in the online comments that work people into a dither of useless vitriol.

We key on the terms of division in our rhetoric because it is a way to signal our status. We celebrate “us” more than “them.”  Others who are different are not allowed to be different.  They are too often renamed as impostors or poseurs. Their person-hood is devalued and their authenticity is judged in the language of a put-down. These days we seem to be carrying around a loaded quiver of arrows at the ready if another person has expressed preferences we’ve decided are fraudulent, or some form of misappropriation, or motivated by some imagined slight.

We now seem so quick to entertain the words of others who have found pleasure in the ridicule of others.  Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind. 

Most folks can still survive they day without denigrating the work, tastes, clothing or choices of others.  But fewer of us seem to be able to resist serving as willing bystanders to a ragged rhetoric of differences re-clothed as revelations of inauthenticity. Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind.

But wasting time and energy on ostensible violations of authenticity gets us nowhere.   And it would help if media would resist measuring every story using the measure of whether it can be framed as a pseudo conflict.

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves. Somehow and at some point Americans are going to have to grow up and leave the useless internet chatter behind.