The definition of a scapegoat is “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency”. The name has its origins in the Bible, whereby the scapegoat was “a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16)”. In human terms, to scapegoat someone is to blame them for wrongs they have not done or to unfairly punish them for perceived failings: a phenomenon often accompanying dysfunctional groups throughout society, in workplaces, schools and families.
Dysfunctional groups are typically inauthentic groups; groups who operate according to emotional dishonesty, blame, destructive envy and competition. Rather than openly and honestly declaring their needs or desires, members of such dysfunctional groups tend to relate inauthentically to one another in order to assure the mutual satisfaction of needs for basic acceptance, or avoidance of loss. The scapegoat – a person designated the default whipping boy of the group – is the person targeted by the group as the bearer of blame for whatever ills befall the group or members within it. This role can be ‘fixed’ – assigned to one or more individuals permanently – or ‘floating’, depending upon the requirements of the group and particular circumstances.
The Dysfunctional Family
In families, the scapegoat tends to fall out of favour by one or both parents and in families where acceptance, approval and affection are in short supply. Thus, in a culture of manipulated scarcity siblings compete for attention, learning quite quickly of the rewards of blaming the scapegoat of the family as, for example, a means of securing approval (or avoiding disapproval) from one or both parents. In extended families the scapegoat serves as the common enemy and target for family resentments, aggression, judgement, gossip and disapproval, usually instigated by a dominant member and supported by collusion from those conforming to patriarchal or matriarchal dominance.
A common feature of stigmatising is its opposite: favouritism and elevation to special status by the conferring authority within the group. Favouritism can be seen as the product of rationing affection that is in short supply within families in the form of conditional approval (Carl Rogers’ ‘conditions of worth’). This reinfoces the dynamic competitiveness and dishonesty within the group as a whole as group members resort to sycophancy and betrayal in the interests of meeting their own esteem needs. Scapegoating is thus a functional element in such groups as a warning to other members of the consequences of dissent. Thus, such groups are motivated by fear rather than genuine love and mutual respect, with betrayal being the means by which one member usurps another.
The Dysfunctional Workplace
This model of top dog and underdog translates into dysfunctional workplaces and other institutional settings, such as schools, whereby a dominant group member assumes a leadership role in designating the scapegoat according to dislike, envy or expediency of purpose, which is then readily supported by individuals keen to secure favour or avoid disfavour for themselves. Scapegoating thus tends to rely upon a dynamic created between one or more dominant ‘leaders’ and followers keen to secure their esteem needs and respective positions by inauthentic alliance and subservience to the leader’s narcissistic or sadistic traits. Scapegoating is thus, inherently, the product of inauthentic group cowardice, power dynamics, and the absence of individual integrity in its members who subjugate moral imperatives to self-interest and the preservation of leadership status. Whistleblowers are an example of those who elect to refuse dysfunctional group dynamics in favour of revealing truth normally concealed by the group and its leadership. They invariably start working life off or end up as the scapegoats of the workplace, often punished and ostracised for their dissent.
Selection of Scapegoats
Scapegoats can be ‘chosen’ for a variety of reasons: disobedience; non-conformity to group norms; overt personal integrity; perceived threats or challenges to authority; the revealing of truths that run counter to the group’s preferred narrative; and other perceived or inferred misdemeanors and differences deemed incompatible with group identity, function or cohesion. In military settings, individuals who are physically weaker or who perform to a lower standard can be scapegoated by the group to avoid their own collective punishment by sadistic leaders. Thus the group functions as a proxy enforcer of authoritarian standards in order that individuals within the group can secure favour or avoid punishment for the scapegoat’s sub-standard performance.
The Common Societal Dynamic
Scapegoating is, in effect, a symptom of the refusal of individuals to accept personal responsibility, or to maintain standards of morality, truth or integrity, preferring instead to inflict suffering upon a created enemy who the group fantasises as being a risk factor or ’cause’ of their misfortune. This ‘common enemy’ serves to artificially unite the group with a false sense of solidarity and familial identity. In reality, the misfortune arises out of the dysfunctionality and lack of genuine bonds found within the dynamic created between inauthentic leader and inauthentic followers: a dynamic that is itself commonly found in society at large and exemplified to some degree or other in government, corporate and a wide variety of institutional settings where conformity to leadership and ‘the team’ is a requirement. Party politics and the behaviour of voters in relation to candidates for leadership roles is a common example of how a group will elevate a preferred individual for special status whilst attacking or criticising those who fail to align themselves to perceived values or declared policy. In-fighting, competition, subterfuge, and other Machiavellian methods of manipulation thus become rife within such societal dynamics: the root ultimately lying in individual inauthenticity and one’s dependence upon others to confer approval, affirmation or provide acceptance, however conditional it may be.
Detrimental Effects Upon the Individual
The effects upon the psyche and wellbeing of individuals who are scapegoated are, unsurprisingly, often destructive and corrosive to perception of self, wellbeing and general functioning. Depression, chronic insecurity, anxiety, PTSD and cPTSD, learned helplessness, suicidal ideation, psychosis and a range of other psychological and physical health problems can arise as a result of being forced into the role of scapegoat. Recovery from the stigma of scapegoating entails close analysis of group dynamics and a reassessment of the reasons behind the original mistreatment of the individual by the group in order to regain a realistic perspective, undo stigmatisation and corrosive messages that the individual may have internalised as a result of his or her mistreatment.
In our inauthentic society the challenge for the individual of personal integrity and truth is to find a way of functioning authentically in the world whilst retaining fidelity to one’s truth and values using a set of skills that the individual can employ to identify and protect oneself from the pitfalls of dysfunctional group membership where such membership cannot be avoided.
Some Famous Scapegoats of Recent Times:
There are countless people in the world who are being scapegoated by the same dysfunctional social dynamics outlined above. The question remains whether the reader is a functional part of these dynamics, or whether he or she assumes a position of refusal to collude in the mistreatment of individuals for the sake of self-interest. It is, I would suggest, the eternal question for all human beings in all situations, and of no greater relevance than in our present, troubled times.
Main Image: The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854 (source HERE)
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