At first glance, the scapegoat seems simple: a case of false accusations and assault. But it’s much more nuanced psychologically, experts say, and those who are scapegoated are often driven by unconscious dynamics.
“I don’t have to worry about myself if I’m a scapegoat, if I’m blaming,” said Deborah Stewart, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Cape Cod, Mass. “That’s the part that most people don’t really know – that they’re trying to push out some of their own feelings by putting them on others.
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The origins of the term “scapegoat” can be found in the Old Testament: in Leviticus, the Israelites ritually placed all their sins on the head of a living goat, who was sent into the desert to carry the people’s transgressions into a desolate land.
In the modern era, psychologists portray scapegoating as a defense mechanism, an unconscious coping strategy, Stewart said. Those who are scapegoats are aware of their negativity and blame. Unconsciously, however, the scapegoat often reflects feelings about ourselves that make us deeply uncomfortable, whether they stem from financial difficulties, relationship failures, or a fear of loss of control, illness or death.
“There are things we can’t bear to see about ourselves,” Stewart said. “’I really don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or stupid or weak or greedy.’ “Instead of attacking those intolerable parts of ourselves, we project our negative traits onto others,” she says.
The scapegoat deflects inner turmoil
In the extreme, hate groups can exploit this susceptibility. Lauren Manning, 32, described herself as an outcast during her teenage years in Ontario, Canada. She had academic difficulties. Her peers made fun of her and isolated her. “My confidence was extremely low to zero,” she said.
When she was 16, her father died of an illness. She felt lost without the man she had revered as her anchor and best friend, and she began to drink heavily. When a violent white supremacist group recruited her at age 17, she found a powerful way to deflect shame from failure and humiliation. “On the inside, when you’re feeling down and so down on yourself, you’re basically looking for anything to make you feel better,” Manning said.
Outwardly, she didn’t have the same skin color as those she was scapegoated for – the people she met after leaving home and living on the streets. And yet, instead of acknowledging her own heavy drinking, she criticized them for centering their lives around drug use. She judged others as criminals. “In the meantime, I’m also into crime,” she said. “I was trying to recruit people into this racist group I got myself into.”
The projection of her own pain and turmoil was unconscious, she said. “It was a way of distracting attention from my own problems. I feel like we see bad qualities in others that we also have in ourselves, that we notice first.
Scapegoating can lead to dangerous self-righteousness
The scapegoat not only feels cathartic, but also stirs up a sense of self-satisfaction, a “seduction of virtue,” Stewart said. By portraying others as bad or inferior, a person will “feel like a rose”, she added. “It’s also a defense. We justify. We moralize. The right mind is a dangerous thing.
This sense of justice can be used to justify acts of aggression, experts say. The white suspect charged in the May Buffalo shooting that killed 10 people and injured three, mostly black, reportedly wrote a manifesto filled with racist rants and talked about the “great replacement” theory. The latter argues that whites are losing influence to people of color because of immigration and higher birth rates.
“I don’t condone violence at all,” Manning said, “but fundamentally the way people in this racist circle view violence is an act of self-defense. … It’s fear turning into anger that turns into violence.”
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Those who violently manifest their racism and prejudice are a small subset of those who are scapegoated, said Jack McDevitt, professor of criminology and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. But many more people are being scapegoated out of fear and resentment, he said.
“There’s a narrative of people getting benefits that people with the scapegoating perspective aren’t able to get,” he said. McDevitt has seen several such lies amplified online. For example, “Asians have a car when they come to this country. The LGBTQ community is being hired at a higher rate than anyone else,” he said.
Leaders can use blatant scapegoating for political motives, with harmful results. “When public figures, lawmakers, demonize certain groups of people, it plays into a narrative that ends up being a scapegoat,” McDevitt said. Such rebukes can drive up hate crimes, he said.
“It is important that our leaders do not engage in this kind of rhetoric,” he said. “It allows people who are already prejudiced against this group to say, ‘If I treat you differently, will anyone care? No.’ ”
Scapegoats choose safe targets
Those who are scapegoated choose targets who feel safe to blame, Stewart said. They perceive their victims as having less power. A younger brother could become the family scapegoat, for example. In society, victims often belong to minority groups, which encourages those who are scapegoats to disrespect them and dehumanize them with less fear of repercussions.
Scapegoating “gives people a sense of false empowerment and protection,” said Michi Fu, a Southern California psychologist and board member of the Asian American Psychological Association. By creating a psychological chasm between them and the scapegoat group, they hope to protect themselves from a dreaded fate.
Because scapegoating is irrational, offenders often target someone nearby. It is impossible to attack something as amorphous as a virus, which is why people of different races have misdirected their fear, hostility and loss of control by avoiding, harassing and physically attacking Americans from Asian origin that had nothing to do with the outbreak of the pandemic.
Because the scapegoat is unconscious, it can be difficult to recognize it within yourself. However, a person may start asking questions to bring the problem to light.
Making broad generalizations about a group can be a telltale sign of scapegoating, McDevitt said. “Some of the stereotypes that form the basis of our scapegoating have an inherent group error,” he said. “Step back and ask yourself questions about it and if… it makes sense.
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For Manning, the self-examination began after feeling the kindness of those she considered enemies. “One night, after getting into this drunken brawl, we run through the streets covered in blood and bruises,” she said. Two black men approached and asked if they could help. “They called 911 for us. They stayed and tried to calm us down as much as possible until help arrived. While working in setting up scaffolding structures, she found camaraderie with her Jamaican colleagues. “These guys are fun. I actually like going to work in the morning,” she said.
Cracks had formed in the racist ideology and Manning felt disillusioned and exhausted. She quit extremism in 2015, having started to disengage after the death of a close friend. With the help of a counselor, she envisioned a different future for herself and pledged to make amends.
She understands the emotions that drive people to scapegoat and demonize others, and she now works as an exit specialist with Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps people leave groups. far-right hater. She also wrote a memoir with her mother, Jeanette Manning, titled “Walking Away From Hate: Our Journey Through Extremism.”
Unearthing unsavory truths about ourselves can be difficult and may require the insight of a counselor. But when people explore their subconscious reasons for scapegoating, Stewart said, “then we won’t be so tempted to act out being hateful toward someone, because we’ve given them a seat at the table of the awareness.”
Instead of forcing our feelings of inadequacy into exile – like the goat sent to the desert – those who are scapegoats can embrace this awareness and grow out of it. “If we can recognize our own inner weak, inner thief, insecure person, all those sorts of things, we’re already bigger,” Stewart said. “I have that part of me. Otherwise, he has me.
Katherine Kam is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.