In Leviticus Chapter 16 two goats are brought before Aaron, who draws lots to choose between them. On to the chosen “scapegoat” are transferred the sins and iniquities of Israel, and it is cast out into the wilderness to make atonement.
It could be worse for the poor animal — Aaron sacrifices the other goat.
As old as civilization itself, “scapegoating” — the act of assigning the transgressions of the guilty onto the innocent — remains alive and well. It can be found in any context, in the high school lunch room, in the city council chambers, in the White House. It can impact entire populations. When community members are symbolically cast out by their leaders for having different opinions about such matters as the veracity of a clearly flawed instant runoff election system, or the wisdom of building an overpriced and poorly planned hydroelectric generating facility, they are being scapegoated.
When our nationally elected leaders cast out underlings in the wake of the terrorist-driven murder of an ambassador, or the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative social welfare groups, they choose to sacrifice members of their own group as cover for their incompetence and abuse of power. This intentional misplacement of accountability at the highest levels of government signals to anyone paying attention that fairness takes a backseat to affiliation. This is classic scapegoating.
The Scapegoating Society, a Sussex, England nonprofit with the mission of raising consciousness about the practice, defines scapegoating as a hostile psycho-social discrediting routine by which people inappropriately shift blame and responsibility away from themselves and toward a target person or group.
Scapegoating provides a platform for the projection of hostility through unmerited accusations. The target of scapegoating has a choice: either permit him or herself to be wrongly persecuted through misplaced vilification, blame and criticism, or to constructively fight back against the improper treatment and labeling — an extraordinarily difficult process.
When people like Greg Hicks, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom choose to testify as whistleblowers in the Benghazi scandal, they decide to fight, to not lie down and permit themselves to be used as scapegoats. When Marilyn Marks fights the city of Aspen in the courts for four years, at great personal expense and in the face of withering personal criticism, she not only does a service to anyone who believes in free and fair elections, she refuses to be treated as a scapegoat for Aspen’s poorly structured and implemented instant runoff voting system.
According to the Raven Foundation, whose mission is to provide social commentary on scapegoating, violence, and religion in order to build lasting peace, one of the characteristics of scapegoating is that often times the scapegoaters do not understand the process in which they are engaged.
Scapegoaters are typically convinced of the guilt of their target, and that the target’s perspective and approach is filled with lies and distortions. Scapegoaters will celebrate symbolically “killing off” their target. If a target chooses to fight back against the scapegoater with similar tactics, such actions are interpreted as validation of the target’s wickedness. This familiar pattern to any observer of or participant in battles for power, whether national or local, political or social, plays out over and over.
Scapegoating has no relationship to justice. Innocence and guilt are irrelevant. Scapegoating benefits the accusers in either concrete ways, such as the winning of an election, or symbolic ways, such as the sickeningly misplaced sense of moral superiority that some get from bullying a classmate.
According to the Raven Foundation’s Suzanne Ross there are five questions we should all ask ourselves regarding whether we are involved in a scapegoating event, either as a perpetrator or target.
1. Who is making the accusation? An accuser with a stake in the outcome is like a judge who should recuse him or herself from a case, and therefore likely a scapegoater.
2. How vulnerable is the accused? Scapegoaters often go after the weak and marginalized. An isolated target will not be able to generate support to survive a scapegoating attack in a community of like-minded individuals.
3. Will the problem be solved if the target is punished or removed from their position? If not, the target is probably being scapegoated. The target’s sacrifice does nothing to end a scapegoater’s corruption.
4. Is public opinion approaching unanimity on the issue? Consensus can indicate truth, but is more often indicative of mob mentality. When facts are suppressed or voices silenced to generate unanimity, scapegoating is at the heart of the effort.
5. What personal stake do we have in the outcome? Even when we are simply bystanders, by permitting the downfall of others in return for an undeserved feeling of moral superiority we facilitate the scapegoaters among us, thereby avoiding the honest work necessary to determine the truth and apply legitimate accountability.
According to Ross: “To be sure you are not scapegoating, you must find the courage to honestly listen to the story of those whom you are convinced are guilty or evil. … The courage to end scapegoating requires the courage to admit you were wrong.”
Because unlike the Old Testament example, our neighbors are not goats to be cast out or sacrificed.