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Scapegoating is a form of social punishment. The scapegoat was a goat that was driven off into the wilderness as part of the ceremonies of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in Judaism during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rite is described in Leviticus 16. The word also refers, in modern parlance, to one who is blamed for misfortunes, often as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.
In the hebrew Bible
Two very similar-appearing male goats were brought into the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur as part of the Holy Service of that day. The high priest cast lots for the two goats. One goat was offered as a burnt offering, as was the bull. The second goat was the scapegoat. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat and confessed the sins of the people of Israel. The scapegoat was led away and let go in the wilderness according to Leviticus 16:22, although the Talmud adds that it was pushed over a distant cliff.
In Christian theology, the story of the scapegoat in Leviticus is interpreted as a symbolic prefiguration of the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who takes the sins of humanity on his own head, having been driven into the 'wilderness' outside the city by order of the high priests.
More recently the anthropology of René Girard has provided a reconstruction of the scapegoat theory. In Girard's view, it is humankind, not God, who has the problem with violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire). This causes a triangulation of desire and results in conflict between the desiring parties. This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual. And the cycle begins again. Girard contends that this is what happened in the case of Jesus. The difference in his case, however, is that he was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent. Thus we are made aware of our own violent tendencies and the cycle is broken. Satan, who is seen to be manifested in the contagion, is cast out. Thus Girard's work is significant as a re-construction of the Christus Victor atonement theory.
Figuratively, a scapegoat is someone selected to bear blame for a calamity. Scapegoating is the act of holding a person, group of people, or thing responsible for a multitude of problems. Scapegoats can also be referred to as patsies.
Scapegoating is often more devastating when applied to a minority group as they are inherently less able to defend themselves. A tactic often employed is to characterize an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small number of individuals belonging to that group, also known as guilt by association.
"Scapegoated" groups throughout history have included almost every imaginable group of people: adherents of different religion, people of different race or nation or political belief, people differing in behaviour of majority. However, scapegoating may also be applied to organizations, such as governments, corporations, or various political groups.
In industrialised societies, scapegoating of traditional minority groups is increasingly frowned upon. In the extreme, this may result in socially-enforced rules regarding speech, as in political correctness.
Scapegoating in sports
In sports, scapegoats are common. In baseball, Bill Buckner is blamed for losing the 1986 World Series due to a critical error. In American football, Scott Norwood is blamed for losing the Super Bowl for the Buffalo Bills during Super Bowl XXV by missing a key field goal. Andrés Escobar, a Colombian football (soccer) player, was shot dead after he scored an own goal that knocked his team out of the 1994 World Cup. The fact that fans of the Chicago Cubs tell of a Curse of the Billy Goat to explain why their team has not won a National League pennant since 1945 should be viewed as a coincidence of language, regardless of how many fans may believe the story.
Scapegoating in psychoanalytic theory
Psychoanalytic theory holds that unwanted thoughts and feelings can be unconsciously projected onto another who becomes a scapegoat for one's own problems. This concept can be extended to projection by groups. In this case the chosen individual, or group, becomes the scapegoat for the group's problems.
- 'The Scapegoat' (1854), painting by William Holman Hunt
- Scapegoating in Group Analytic Theory (PDF files)
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