Scapegoat

Defining Scapegoat

Scapegoat traditionally refers to any material object, animal, bird or person on whom the bad luck, diseases, misfortunes and sins of an individual or group are symbolically placed, and which is then turned loose, driven off with stones, cast into a river or the sea, etc., in the belief that it takes away with it all the evils placed upon it (Maria Leach 1950).

Image portraying a victim of scapegoat
Image portraying a victim of scapegoat. Image courtesy of WikipediaOpens in new window

Scapegoat is regarded as an aspect of human behavior that is universal and manifests itself in attempts to diminish or alleviate guilt and fear of punishment by some form of transfer of responsibility onto someone or something else.

The concept of scapegoating Opens in new window—i.e. a person standing—in for others in order to accept blame and responsibility for some occurrence—is as old as humanity itself. Today, the term ‘scapegoat’ is surrounded and complicated by ideas like blame, prejudice, and visible difference.

Within organization and groups, people are often referred to as ‘scapegoats’ and reference is frequently made to the process of scapegoating. Indeed, the scapegoat as a person, is in some ways considered necessary; by taking the responsibility of blame for some of the bad things that are happening to the group and within the group, a scapegoat can make it possible for the group to continue to function.

Scapegoating is a ubiquitous occurrence in groups of all sizes. Seldom does a week pass without some reference in the media to someone who has made a scapegoat. Indeed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that it has become one of the favorite words of the latter half of the twentieth century to describe those in public, and in private, who are apparently unjustly or unfairly blamed for certain events.

The Origin of Scapegoat

The term scapegoat comes from the Bible’s reference to a goat upon which Aaron cast all the sins of Israel and then banished to the wilderness. Hence, the goat, though presumably blameless, was essentially punished for the sins of the people of Israel. Psychologists have expanded the concept to include not only someone else to pay the price for one’s own immorality but also a target of blame and explanation when outcomes are not what one hoped for.

Scapegoating in the Belief Systems of Society

Mary Renault, in her book The Praise Singer, gives a graphic description of a scapegoating process from ancient Greece:

  • They stripped him, and put the ritual offering cake in his hands, having to tie them there, because he shook so, and led him out to the gate. There they beat him as the rite prescribes, on his tenderest parts till he screamed aloud. Then everyone fell on him as they chose, to purge their offences which he carried for them, and drove him along with sticks and cudgels till he fell. I don’t know if he was dead when they came to throw him on the bonfire (Mary Renault 1979:40).

The victim in this incident described by Mary Renault was known as the Pharmakos, thus, the Greeks sacrificed their pharmakos because they were afraid of the approaching army of barbarians at whose hands there must have been some expectation that they would suffer, if not be killed. Implicit in this expectation is the belief that nothing of even the smallest moment could occur without it being the will of the gods and with their involvement directly or indirectly in bringing about events.

The scapegoat ritual was essentially a process of purification, which means in essence that its practitioners felt that they were contaminated by the transgressions of their daily lives and that the ritual of scapegoating was one that would effectively disperse that contamination and reinstate them as clean in their own eyes and, more importantly, in the eyes of their god.

Psychologists have highlights the element of fear as the propelling motivation to seek for ways of allaying imminent danger. See also, the scapegoat theoryOpens in new window.