Scapegoats – an ancient ritual for modern times

I’ve been thinking about scapegoats recently.
As you probably know, a scapegoat is a person or group that is made to carry the blame for others. It is referenced in historical texts, such as the Bible’s Old Testament and the Talmud, and its practice can be traced back to Ancient Syria and Greece. The act of a priest confessing all the sins of the people over the head of a goat, and then driving it into the wilderness, symbolised the bearing away of those sins. Once accomplished the community could feel better about the past and look forward to a guilt-free future.
If only it were that easy.

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.


As 2016 comes to an end, we’ve had a year of scapegoats and witnessed the woes of Australia, USA, UK [or pick any random place] being heaped upon an unfortunate person or group. Recent scapegoats are the Muslims according to Hanson, the Mexicans according to Trump, the European Union and migrants according to Farage, etc. etc.
I’m sure many of you have wished that someone you know or work with would just leave and then everything would be better. This person becomes the scapegoat, the focus of everything that is wrong with the situation, even if they were not the real cause of the bad feeling. If they leave, it may seem better merely due to their absence, but if the underlying problems of the country, workplace, or of one’s own personality, are not also addressed then chances are not much will change.
Perhaps you’ve been the person who was driven away. You may have felt that was your only option as the bitterness of the workplace or relationship grew more unbearable. But a scapegoat leaving is only part of this long-standing human practice.
An important and often overlooked action within this ancient ritual is the priest’s confession of the sins of the people over the head of the goat. For this act to have any meaningful outcome the community had to first acknowledge its own short-comings, recognise the wrongs it had committed. For a scapegoat to be effective, it requires those driving it away to admit their part in the problem, in order to allow for forgiveness and a fresh start. The goat itself was innocent of any wrong-doing, so if the confession of so-called sins is not voiced, there will be no renewal for those left behind, only stasis and festering resentment.
Unfortunately, this self-reflection rarely occurs. The sins committed are often seen as belonging to the person or group who is made to be the scapegoat, not the people driving it into the wilderness. Very often people will search for reasons to confirm their view of any situation and conveniently overlook their own role in the mess they are in. This confirmation bias actively works against any self-reflection or personal growth – and we’re all guilty of it to some degree.
But the interesting question is what happens when a scapegoat is identified, but then not driven out into the wilderness?
Sometimes it’s impossible for someone to leave, or perhaps a person refuses to wear the mantle of scapegoat despite the group’s pressures. If that person stays around they risk reminding the group of their own sins. When there is a lack of acceptance of these sins by those who committed them, then people will search and latch onto any confirmation bias they can find to support their innocent view of themselves. It becomes a habit, second nature, and could potential become a real threat, as the scapegoat transforms into being the problem, rather than the carrier of sins it is supposed to bear away.
I think that’s where we are at this moment in many places in the world. Do we honestly expect all our problems would disappear if we deported every Muslim/Mexican [insert latest scapegoat here]? Even if we did something as shockingly degrading as that, do we really think much would change if we don’t also acknowledge our own part in creating whatever crisis we believe we are in?
But a scapegoat used to be a real goat. It was a creature that would have a chance at survival in the wilderness; find other goats, settle down and procreate. If it was taken by a predator, then that’s the natural order of things.
As humans, we live in communities. We’ve evolved to live in groups for food, reproduction, safety, companionship. Exile from the community used to mean death, or a miserable, lonely existence for a person, so exiling or making someone a scapegoat was a serious decision.
Today, scapegoats are easily named and often used as a convenience to avoid looking at the failures of society, the economy, politics, even ourselves. It will take pause and reflection, and an honest recognition of our own learned behaviours to overcome this easy, knee-jerk response to any difficulty we face.
If we truly want a fresh start, a better way forward, we must first name and acknowledge our own sins, before we heap them onto a poor, four-legged creature, and chase it out of the village. Only then will we begin to feel a little better, not only about the world, but also about ourselves.

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