Where does scapegoating come from?

Picture of By Álvaro G. Arrieta

By Álvaro G. Arrieta

Most of you will know what a scapegoat is, or at least how it’s used in everyday language. Normally, a group of (privileged) members of society unite against a (vulnerable) minority group that is subsequently excluded. Segregating someone, something or a group that is thought to represent the ills of society could have had any other name, so why this one? And what does a goat have to do with it? Everything.

One can always find the greatest of stories in the Bible. Deriving from classic Hebrew, ‘ăzāzêl is the name for two entities: Azazel, a fallen angel; and a goat symbolically sent into the desert “for the total removal” of the people’s sins (as explained in Leviticus 16: 6). The latter refers to the mammal sent to the former in sacrifice. All the (unintentional) sins of the Israelites for one particular year were placed upon it as part of the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. In said ritual, two male goats were drawn by lots to be sacrificed to either Yahweh or Azazel.

This transfer of the blame is key for two of the most important factors intervening in scapegoating.

Then, according to the Greek Old Testament, the literal removal of the scapegoat would expiate transgressions against the divine law as “the sender away of sins”, therefore purifying the Tabernacle and making sure no wrong remained in the God-fearing community. In other words, scapegoating is a vulgar synonym to vicarious redemption and substitutionary atonement, all of which refer to the idea that you can throw your sins onto somebody else, obviating and fictionally abolishing the responsibility on the part of the “sinner.”. This transfer of the blame is key for two of the most important factors intervening in scapegoating: blaming the vulnerable and herd mentality.

Blaming the vulnerable
In transferring the responsibility for something wrong to a minority group, as is often the case, what is effectively happening is the majority is uniting and refusing their part in the situation. This way, the bigger group will project the entire responsibility onto those who are an easy prey and, perhaps, lack the means to defend themselves publicly and to raise an alternative narrative.

Encourage herd mentality
One of the reasons why scapegoating works is because it brings out the worst in people and encourages mob thinking. Problems are multi-angled, so it is very difficult that only one party is responsible for a situation hinders a process of critical reflection on the problem, thus limiting it to a matter of whose blame is it.


Photo:  Unsplash / Final editor: Ivo Martens

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