Mind Matters — Scapegoating: Yet Another Defense

“… Aaron shall bring forward the live goat. Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the sinful faults and transgressions of the Israelites, and so put them on the goat’s head. He shall then have it led into the desert by an attendant. Since the goat is to carry off their inequities to an isolated region, it must be sent away into the desert.” (Leviticus 16:20-23)

There you have the biblical origin of the scapegoat. Greeks had their form of scapegoat too, whereby a cripple or beggar or criminal would be cast out of the community because of some natural disaster.

That was then, this is now—and, scapegoating still abounds. Family therapists years ago noted how a dysfunctional family may cast a member in the role of identified patient. This is the person perceived as having the problem, while in fact this individual is “unconsciously selected to act out the family’s conflicts as a diversion; who is the split-off carrier of (the perhaps trans-generational) family disturbance.” (Wikipedia!)

Generally speaking, scapegoating is singling out an individual, group, or country for negative treatment or blame. Scapegoating may be a defense against facing ourselves—“not my fault, but yours and theirs”—it is also a defense against the reality of our own vulnerability.

Let me bring this closer to home. Ever notice how we often blame the victim for the trauma that befalls him or her? When a young woman is raped, often we hear “she was provocative, she went down the wrong street, what was she doing out at that hour,” etc.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, the rumor mill took off, defaming the victim. Even closer to home, I recall how a family, in the grief group I facilitate, suffered not only the death of their son, but the despicable reactions of people posting on the internet how they were bad parents for allowing their twelve year old to “ride his bicycle on that street.” We scapegoat unconsciously all the time—I remember being blamed by some people for my having miscarriages. “Well, you know you should have tried to get pregnant sooner.” or “Do you have an anger problem?” or “Are you sure you’re eating right?”

In all these cases the scapegoat-maker is protecting him or herself from the inevitable vicissitudes of life: “Must be your fault, therefore that can’t happen to me.” The unspoken corollary is “I’m good, you’re bad.”

And what about what is going on in our country right now? Our most recent national scapegoat is Bowe Bergdahl. Rather than welcome home this soldier held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for over five years, there has been a movement afoot to discredit and blame him. When I saw the video footage of his release, I observed a man confused, traumatized, and who perhaps hadn’t seen the light of day for a long while. This man just got out of the desert; there is no need to scapegoat him back into another.