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Scapegoating Takes Us Down a Dangerous Path

by on September 22, 2020 4:45 AM

While preparing to nod off to sleep recently I picked up my October 2020 issue of Harper’s magazine from the night stand and started reading a bit while I waited for my wife to get ready for bed. As I opened the pages and started scanning through it I discovered an essay by author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams. 

The very first sentence caught my eye with a reference to the famous short story “The Lottery” which was initially published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker magazine. For those who weren’t assigned this reading in their high school English class, or who, like me, compartmentalized it in part of your brain and locked it away due to the tragic nature of the story, it focuses on the practice in one of a number of unnamed fictional towns and villages where to ensure the community's continued well-being the residents hold a once-a-year lottery. The catch – the winner of the lottery gets stoned to death at the hands of everyone else from the village.

Duly engaged, I read the rest of the essay, which used “The Lottery” as a segue into a current-event discussion of the French-American literary theorist and anthropologist René Girard’s mimetic theory – specifically the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat mechanism is a process through which we resolve conflict by unifying against an arbitrary other person or group which is then excluded – or eliminated – and blamed for our problems. With the other person or group gone, the conflict ends and social order returns. The hitch is it only works if we unanimously believe that the person or group expelled is truly guilty or dangerous. 

Scapegoating has been used throughout history in conflicts large and small, but similar to “The Lottery” it is the large-group tragic instances that garner the most attention and are the most extreme examples. From the residents of Salem Village blaming their afflictions on witchcraft and witches in 1692, to the fascists blaming their countries’ problems on Jews, Freemasons, Marxists and immigrants in the 1940’s, groups have been demonized to the point of death throughout time. 

The essay in Harper’s uses less deadly but still life-changing current examples to call into question whether or not we recognize scapegoating in our constant efforts to be politically correct. Examples such as Justine Sacco, who in 2013 tweeted  “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS,” or Rebecca Tuvel who compared in 2017 Caitlyn Jenner’s male-to-female change to Rachel Dolezal’s white-to-black portrayal. Both were roundly denounced as racists, but were they just scapegoats?

With the knowledge and hindsight of centuries of scapegoating we could hope that in today’s ever-more-informed society it would become a thing of the past. Something easily identified and halted before lives are ruined, or in the most disastrous and appalling instances, people are killed. 

Which is why I was surprised, confused, taken aback and genuinely puzzled by comments by a few friends I recently read on social media. These friends implied with their comments that the behavior of others was the cause of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths of these other people as a result of the pandemic would be justification and/or proof for the wrongness of their behavior. The scapegoats would be dead and the rest of us would be safer.

It’s at moments like these when I recall the following dialogue from the 1992 movie A Few Good Men

Lt. Sam Weinberg: An argument that didn't work for Calley at My Lai. An argument that didn't work for the Nazis at Nuremberg. 

Lt. Daniel Kaffee: Oh for Christ's sake Sam, do you really think that's the same as two teenage Marines executing an order they never believed would result in harm? These guys aren't the Nazis.

In other words, context. I know my friends don’t want these other people on the internet to die. Clearly there is not intent in their comments. But their comments, without the context of the of the pandemic which has already caused the deaths of 200,000 people, the other comments that led to their questionable response, and the lack of any tone in the writing, puts them squarely on the slippery slope to not only becoming scapegoats, but to the ultimate and non-recoverable scapegoating error – the mortal elimination of the scapegoat.

As distasteful as I found the comments of my friends, the larger issue is they are not close to being rare or unique. I read similar comments regularly from many others I don’t know but whose commentary shows up in my feeds and posts and tweets. It was only my connection to the posters that made me stop and think about both the purpose of, and the lack of need for these types of comments. 

Which leads us to what needs to be the No. 1 social media personal-editing guideline followed by everyone – as heinous, unintelligent, loud, vile, arrogant, disgusting and blood-boiling someone else’s comments on the internet may be, we cannot wish that they die. Because that is a step down the path of no return. And the further down that path we go the closer we come to the day when we find ourselves randomly picking one innocent scapegoat every year to stone to death for the purpose of retaining the collective happiness in our lives.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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