Scapegoating is “the act of blaming and often punishing a person or a group for a negative outcome that is due, in large part, to other causes.” Scapegoating is alive and well in the United States and many other countries.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Scapegoating has been going on for centuries–think of the witch hysteria and trials in Europe and America that lasted into the late 1700’s, the Nazis’ “attempted extermination of Jews and other minority groups” during World War II , and, more recently, Bosnia, Rwanda, right-wing movements in present-day Europe, and the Trump administration in the United States targeting migrant caravans, Mexicans, Muslims, China, the “media”, and virtually everyone else. Individuals, groups, and organizations blamed for everything from corrupting “traditional” moral values, contributing to economic disruption, causing crime, destroying a way of life, and on and on. “People seem all too eager to heap blame onto others for major misfortunes.”
“The idea of the scapegoat is an astounding psychological tool for managing morale.” “A scapegoat … is a tool for taming or expelling self-hatred.”
You’re stuck in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck, your relationship is a mess, you’re going nowhere, and you have no prospects … who is to blame? Those poor choices you have made can’t possibly be the reason. Instead, it must be those illegal aliens who are taking the best jobs, getting services for free, causing crime, destroying some mythical past way of life, etc. They’re to blame; you’re a victim. Self-esteem must be saved, inadequacy must be rationalized.
Then there are those who cynically use scapegoating for personal, often political benefit. Political “campaigning spurs visions of greatness and vicious attacks on opponents. They’re scapegoats, and the exaggerated hostility toward them is a symbolic slaughter. The overreachers discharge their own panic and self-disgust at others. And their followers thrill to be part of the hero’s symbolic rampage.”
We hate and demonize others to make up for the inadequacies and self-doubt we see in our own lives–and to prop up the individuals and groups who feed our opinions.
Scapegoating is dangerous and futile. It never solves problems–only destroys and creates new ones. The blamers may feel victimized and enraged but, in the end, they are as likely to be harmed.
Understand what causes and leads to scapegoating; break the cycle of fear and self-recrimination. Forgive yourself and others.
*Farrell, K. (2015). Lame Blame: Forgive the scapegoat to forgive yourself. Psychology Today. Posted December 25, 2015.
*Rothschild, Z. K., Landau, M. J., Sullivan, D., & Keefer, L. A. (2012). A dual-motive model of scapegoating: Displacing blame to reduce guilt or increase control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1148-1163. [PDF] [Cited by]
For more information about scapegoating and other psychological phenomena, search the Science Primary Literature Database.
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**Updated April 30, 2021**