The Paradox of Scapegoating: What Seems to Make Us Safe Actually Diminishes Us

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“If you knew the secret life of your enemies it would be enough to disarm all your hostilities.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We humans are something else. We’re either putting other people on pedestals or else relishing their demise. We’re the ultimate social creatures. We love to imitate each other or else thrive on beating the other guy out. We just can’t get enough of each other, all the while deluding ourselves into believing that we are self-made persons. While all of these patterns are relatively normal there is a type of relating that is particularly unhealthy. It is the pattern of scapegoating. When a group of people unify to focus on the shortcomings of one person or subgroup of undesirable people in their midst, everyone suffers. Trying to exclude the black sheep from the group is not good for any of the sheep and ultimately benefits the wolves.

I remember when the new guy at work joined our team. His name was Omar. He was dark and odd looking, spoke with a funny accent and came from Somalia. Most of us thought at first, “Oh great, so now we have our token middle-eastern minority. How is this guy going to help our team of hotshot analysts?” Things didn’t get any better when Omar asked where he could use his prayer rug during the day for private service. Most of us regulars decided to be a good sport about having Omar join us. That is, after we all checked our machines for identity theft and sabotage after Omar got the password to the system. We kept an eye on him all right. But actually the worst gripe about Omar was that he never said anything about himself. We’d get together in our usual coffee circle in the afternoon and Omar acted like he wasn’t there. He didn’t get our jokes. Sometimes he’d bring some middle-eastern buddies to work and they’d loudly stammer away in this weird dialect and ignore us. That’s when all of us would definitely check our machines. We’d ask each other, “Why is this guy here? What is his agenda? Is it safe to have him here?” Finally for some unknown reason a few of us started warming up to Omar. We noticed he was warm, had a great sense of humor and really knew the software, often better than we did.

One day Omar broke his silence at our coffee circle. Out of the blue he blurted out, “I would really like it if you guys would come to my mosque. We have a special service and meal to honor people who are important to us.” Omar’s invitation was met with dead silence. Many of us thought, “Who is this guy and why does he think we would come to his mosque?” Needless to say, none of us but me went to his mosque service. What a shock I got. I was treated with deep respect at the mosque. I learned that many of his peers were very devoted to community service, care for elderly people and had a viewof life where spiritual improvement and family devotion was way more important than individually getting ahead. The tenderness of people at his church and their commitment to a religious discipline genuinely floored me. I thought, “Geez these people focus on what really matters!” Suddenly I began realizing what I was missing by only seeing Omar as a threat. Suddenly I began looking at myself and my work place in a whole new light. And yes, our cool old boys club at work seemed a lot less cool and our team as a whole felt a lot richer.

What contributes to scapegoating and how does it hurt us?

Several factors contribute to a group of people making one person or persons the problem of the group. Blaming is a universal tendency. What we fear in ourselves we wish others to correct because we are overwhelmed. The ones blamed often have history of being blamed and often don’t know how to fit in without being the object of other people’s scorn. They are often exquisitely attuned to group dynamics and are willing to make other people’s problems their fault in a poorly boundaried way. Their mantra is, “What did I do to make everybody hate me?” Often blamed  people have some superficial quirks that appear to attract other people’s scorn. On the other hand, the ones doing the blaming are famously oblivious about themselves and their own failings. They are more than willing to make their own failings the fault of somebody else. Their mantra is, “Everything would be OK if our problem person would just go away.” They are not aware that what they dislike in the scapegoat is exactly what they themselves dislike about themselves.

Eventually the scapegoat becomes the sacrificial lamb so that group members will not have to face their own inadequacies. The blamers appear to be above it all but they are in fact way more dependent on the scapegoat than the scapegoat is on them. If such a group loses their emblem of scorn they will have to find a new candidate to absorb all the inadequacy of their system. Blamers are notoriously good at externalizing responsibility and thinking in a paranoid and prejudiced way. The blamed are adept at faulting themselves for other people’s insecurities. However, none of us is really made safer by this arrangement.

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Affixing blame on one person hurts everybody. It makes all relationships insecure as people wonder, “Am I the next one to be blamed?” It creates a hostile society where no one is innocent and no one can feel good about themselves even when life is good, because everyone participates in the ruin of a fellow human. However, the greatest harm from scapegoating comes from self-delusion. When group members claim they have nothing in common with the goat of the group they become ignorant of themselves. They lock away unconscious troubled parts of themselves for eternity and assign those same troubled parts to someone else. They get entombed in their own prejudice and paranoia.

How different it would be if members allowed the scapegoat to be the shaman of the group, someone they could identify with and learn from. Most group goats, however antagonizing, are the true psychics of the group. When they speak, people ought to listen. Not seeing ourselves in people we hate is an experience in a living death.

Why do we look for people to blame?

Some of us see other people as dispensable and lack the ability to get value from people who are different from ourselves. We may like to hang around in cliques and are unaware of how our lack of empathy skills have constricted our lives. We don’t know what we don’t know and are prone to dismiss people who are different from ourselves. Others of us have a xenophobia. We become irrationally scared by oddballs. Perhaps we have been raised with a small town mentality where moving away from our comfort zone is seen as dangerous. We may use blame as an unconscious way to live a deprived life so familiar to what we know. Also, if we treat another person as a leper we will never learn to appreciate odd qualities in ourselves. Some others of us have too few spiritual supports and we become easily overwhelmed when the world gets complicated and out of control. Rather than seeking comfort from a Higher Power and seeing how we can make our own lives livable, we may tend to look for undesirable people who appear to be making all the trouble we are experiencing inside ourselves. Inevitably, focusing outside ourselves looking for people to blame only makes things worse since the real problem is inside ourselves. It would be far better to follow the advice of Pogo, the comic book character who said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

This is hard to admit but I really didn’t like Lisa in our Alanon group. She’s young, attractive, and gets all this attention from group members. My friends and I just snubbed her. Then one day I talked about feeling powerless when my dad died recently, and Lisa opened up to me after the meeting about losing her dad and how she realized over time that his alcoholism didn’t totally define him. I was stunned and grateful for her kindness. Having her be so personal with me after I had repeatedly shunned her shifted something in me. I saw Lisa and myself differently. I later realized it wasn’t Lisa’s looks that made her popular, it was her caring. It was painful to see how my own envy and insecurity about my looks had severely closed my heart towards others for years. Now I worry less about my looks and just try to be a good person to others.

Is it wrong to exclude people from groups?

Certainly there are times when not including others in groups is a good thing to do. Quarantining people who have serious communicable disease or are violent criminals is a wise thing to do. Even in less extreme cases all of us may have times where we may need to limit our contact with others and maintain boundaries so we’re not hurt by others. Perhaps certain people are being intrusive with us or are contaminating our emotional lives with their own unfinished issues and we are too vulnerable to such intrusions. None of us ought to have to continually suffer just to keep certain people in our lives. Usually we only need to limit certain types of contact with such people and not reject them overall. Having strong but flexible emotional boundaries is essential for safe living and maturity. Indeed, when there are clear dangers outside ourselves we owe it to ourselves to exclude such experiences and limit contact with some perilous people.

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However, when danger arises from inside ourselves thanks to our own unidentified personal turmoil it’s generally not a good idea to exclude people from our group of associates. People who are different or rub us the wrong way but are not clearly abusive are probably the most helpful people we will ever meet. Doing so exposes the shadow side of ourselves and allows us to heal our hidden wounds. If we disallow the “wrong people” in our lives we can miss out on learning things about ourselves that require healing or make us bigger persons. As the example above illustrates, prejudice towards others likely is an expression of our own discomfort with hidden and unacceptable aspects of ourselves. If we exclude undesirables we may never learn to forgive the undesirable parts of ourselves. In fact we may never even see those parts in ourselves if it were not for the undesirables in our lives. Scapegoating is always about ourselves, not others. Clearly the rejection of people for being different makes all of our relationships unstable as people close to us may ask, “Am I next?” Exclusion due to our own insecurities is a slow poison that eventually hurts everybody.

Being more inclusive

The world is full of people who are different from us, thank goodness. None of us is required to like everybody we meet. However, if we have a strong antipathy towards others for no apparent reason chances are good that something is amiss in ourselves. It may be a bitter pill to swallow to require ourselves to include someone in our life we wish to exclude. What makes it bitter is having to face parts of ourselves embodied in our enemy we wish not to know. It may help to hear from our confidantes why they react so favorably to someone we just cannot stand. Unfortunately some confidantes may have the same prejudice as we have and there will be very little to learn. It’s best if we don’t look at superficial aspects of why we don’t like others as if that were the entire explanation of why our scapegoat should be excluded. It would be better to struggle with our own uncertainty than to mechanically write someone else off for insufficient reasons. When reacting strongly to undesirable people, a good question to ask ourselves is, “What part of myself is exactly like the person I do not like?” Then you will know what needs to be forgiven in yourself.

Some of us may only learn how to be inclusive by actually being around someone we don’t like. Perhaps only then will we learn why we are wanting to exclude others. We may find that what  we fear or hate has nothing to do with others. We may find that our hatred for others is a form of hidden admiration. Or we may simply come to our senses in getting to know someone in a personal way and start liking someone we’ve always disliked. Every time such turn-around’s happen a deeper healing has occurred inside ourselves and we become the better parts of ourselves more fully. We may not even know how it all happened or why it all happened . But we will know that it is good and that we are better off for it.

If you want to understand more extreme scapegoating and how we all lose from it read, Thirty Eight Nooses by Scott W. Berg or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs.

If you want to grasp the benefits of being more inclusive consider the better parts of Christianity as embodied in:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, 
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, 
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, 
For they shall be called sons of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sermon on the Mount, Gospel of Matthew


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Contact John at 651-699-4573. This article first appeared in the March / April 2014 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.

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