Monday, February 13, 2006


A long time ago I wrote a short essay, a bit clunky, on scapegoating. I find scapegoating to be perhaps the nastiest human crowd characteristic and one we still don't give enough attention. Even on some blog comments threads scapegoating begins, swells and becomes disgusting, all in the matter of few hours.

Here are a few quotes from my essay:

The ancients used scapegoating for psychological healing of their communities. The poor victim, known to all to be blameless in whatever ailed the society, was saddled with all the grievances and sins of the past year and then ceremoniously killed or at least beaten and chased out of town. Clearly, scapegoating was not a favorite career plan for any human or animal.

Scapegoating is still with us. It is practiced by the media, the politicians, the so-called cultural critics and the ordinary people we meet in our daily lives. Anybody can become a scapegoat, although the odds are slight for those with some power or status in the society. Most scapegoats are picked from those living on the margins: the poor, the racially or ethnically unassimilated minorities, believers in unfashionable religions, individuals who act out of the traditionally ordained roles allowed them, freethinkers.

Scapegoating by others is easy to distinguish from true attempts to find the culprits of some wrongful deed (although we are likely to be blind to the scapegoat-seeking aspects of our own behavior). The acts are scapegoating when the groups blamed are clearly nowhere near powerful enough to have caused the lamentable phenomenom for which they are accused, when they are inexplicably saddled with all sorts of misdeeds without any attempt to logically connect them to the origins of the problems, and when all aspects of their lives are suddenly demonized. Scapegoating is also revealed when reasonable defenses of the accused are ignored or belittled (where this is not common practice).

It is true that we no longer officially sanction the sacrifice of the scapegoats but the career of a scapegoat is still a painful one. More importantly, scapegoating is wrong. Whatever temporary psychological relief it brings is overshadowed by the new harm the society is inflicting on some of its members. And emphasizing scapegoating leaves the true causes of our problems unattended, and the problems themselves will probably persist.

Examples of scapegoating in human history are not hard to come by. Perhaps the most famous are the medieval witch hunts in Europe and the later American incidents in Salem, Massachusetts. But more recent cases also abound. Consider the public discussion concerning welfare recipients that preceded the 1996 reform of the relevant law. That this discussion reduced to scapegoating is evident from the treatment the politicians and the press accorded the women who were bringing up children on welfare. By all generally accepted standards this group is one of the most economically and culturally powerless: most women in this position are without adequate education and marketable skills, are solely responsible for small children and in many cases lack the psychological resources to advance themselves and their children in life. Their position is clearly problematic and deserves attention and study. I would also argue that it deserves compassion.

What type of attention did this problem in fact receive? Much of it consisted of blame. We all remember the term "welfare queen", the reference to the poor as piglets sucking at the teats of big government, and perhaps also the reference to taxpayers pulling the wagon on which the freeloading poor recline. Some may also recall the arguments that all welfare does is allow the poor to breed another generation of criminals and "welfare queens".

It is not the presence of such arguments that defines this case as scapegoating. After all, it is reasonable to study the extent of misuse in the system as well as its costs to the rest of the society. What is not reasonable, and thereby constitutes grounds for calling the debate scapegoating, is the tone and the vehemence of the arguments, the complete lack of qualifying terms (such as some, a few, most) and statistical evidence (averages, modes, medians), as well as the relative paucity of alternative points of view. Add to these the impression one got from many of the arguments that the welfare system as it stood was largely responsible for high taxes on the hard-working citizens of this country, contrasted with the fact that at that time only one dollar out of each hundred taken in as tax revenue went to welfare payments overall, and the case for scapegoating becomes stronger still. In reality, very little would change if all welfare recipients could somehow miraculously be made to disappear into thin air. The actual value of this whole campaign was in the psychological relief it gave its proponents:"We have identified to problem, assigned blame for it and punished the guilty. Our house is now in order."

But it isn't, of course. Even more generally, the value of scapegoating is only temporary; a release for all the pent-up anger that we as a society seem to have collected over time, a release which is "legitimized" and led to a channel where it does the minimum amount of damage to those in power.

The reason for making you wade through my amateurish essay is that it's a shorter way of seeing what is common in these two very different stories: one about child witches in Kinshasa and one about the partisanship in American politics.

The child witches in Kinshasa are scapegoats for AIDS, for the dissolution of families it causes, for anything going wrong in the society. The fundamentalist churches of the area exploit this and charge money to "exorcize" these children (by starvation and beatings). The children end up on the streets:

'Thirty years ago this did not exist,' says Remy Mafu, the director of the Rejeer project for street children. 'Now it's a huge problem and difficult to know how to deal with it.'

He estimates there are between 25,000 and 50,000 children on the streets of Kinshasa, a city of seven million. Many - if not most - have been accused of witchcraft and rejected by their families. The roots lie in a distorted development of African culture. Witchcraft does not mean in Africa what it means in Europe. Traditionally in Congo, every community had mediums who communicated with spirits in the other world. These were usually older people, revered and respected. The spirits they communed with or were possessed by were usually neither good nor bad, simply powerful.

'In African culture, when something goes wrong, we ask the spirits to find the human cause,' Mafu explains. 'These days children are accused. They can be persuaded to accept it's their fault. They tell themselves "it is me, I am evil".'

Then there are the new fundamentalist Christian sects, of which there are thousands in Kinshasa. They make money out of identifying 'witches' and increasingly parents bring troublesome children to the pastors. 'It's a business,' says Mafu. 'For a fee of $5 or $10 they investigate the children and confirm they are possessed. For a further fee they take the child and exorcise them, often keeping them without food for days, beating and torturing them to chase out the devil.'

Children who do well in school can also be accused of witchcraft. The common charge is they have been seen flying or eating human flesh. Their confessions of killing and eating relatives are broadcast live on TV channels owned by evangelical churches. What once seemed aberrations from extremist sects now seem to be becoming commonplace.

Horrible, isn't it? Aren't we happy not to live in Kinshasa? Sure. But we are not free of the scapegoating tendencies here, either. Glenn Greenwald has an interesting blogpost about the meaning of being a liberal these days: it turns out to mean nothing but disagreement with the Dear Leader. Anyone can become a liberal by just criticizing Bush, even Andrew Sullivan, who usually rules as a demi-god in the conservative pantheon. Greenwald:

We have heard for a long time that anger and other psychological and emotional factors drive the extreme elements on the Left, but that is (at least) equally true for the Bush extremists. The only difference happens to be that the Bush extremists control every major governmental institution in the country and the extremists on the Left control nothing other than the crusted agenda for the latest International A.N.S.W.E.R. meeting.

And the core emotions driving the Bush extremists are not hard to see. It is a driving rage and hatred – for liberals, for Muslims, for anyone who opposes George Bush. The rage and desire to destroy is palpable. When John Hinderaker removes those tightly-wound glasses and lets go of the death grip he maintains on the respectable-corporate-lawyer facade, these are the sentiments which are always stirring underneath:

You dumb shit, he didn't get access using a fake name, he used his real name. You lefties' concern for White House security is really touching, but you know what, you stupid asshole, I think the Secret Service has it covered. Go crawl back into your hole, you stupid left-wing shithead. And don't bother us anymore. You have to have an IQ over 50 to correspond with us. You don't qualify, you stupid shit.

The rhetoric of Bush followers is routinely comprised of these sorts of sentiments dressed up in political language – accusations that domestic political opponents are subversives and traitors, that they ought to be imprisoned and hung, that we ought to drop nuclear bombs on countries which have committed the crime of housing large Muslim populations. These are not political sentiments, and they're certainly not conservatives sentiments, but instead, are psychological desires finding a venting ground in a political movement.

It's not an accident that Ann Coulter and her ongoing calls for violence against "liberals" (meaning anyone not in line behind George Bush) are so wildly popular among conservatives. It's not some weird coincidence that the 5,000 people in attendance at the CPAC this last week erupted in "boisterous ovation" when she urged violence against "ragheads,' nor is it an accident that her hateful, violence-inciting screeds -- accusing "liberals" of being not wrong, but "treasonous" -- become best-sellers. Ann Coulter has been advocating violence against liberals and other domestic political opponents for years, and she is a featured speaker at the most prestigious conservative events. Why would that be? It's because she is tapping into the primal, rather deranged rage which lies in the heart of many Bush followers. If that weren't driving the movement, she wouldn't provoke the reactions and support that she does.

There it all is: pent-up hatred and fear, problems attributed to people who are innocent or too unimportant to matter, the channeling of all that hatred into threats of violence towards those picked for scapegoating. The Democratic party is currently so weak that it can't resist anything the Republicans decide to do. Yet the right sees the Democrats or the liberals as the causes of all their misfortunes.

This is familiar stuff in many ways. Feminists have always been scapegoated, partly because what we say provokes some real rage and anger in those whose self-esteem depends on their rank in the societal hierarchy, and partly because we are deemed as eminently scapegoatable. Women, more generally, are also frequently scapegoated. In Indonesia some muslim clerics argued that last year's tzunami was caused by women not veiling enough.

It is easy to see the psychological advantages of scapegoating for the community. It is much more important to point out its catastrophic consequences, too, and the fact that the scapegoating process ignores the true causes of the troubles that created the rage and fear in the first place.

We lefty bloggers appear to be ready for scapegoating. It will be interesting to see what form it takes. Or would be, if I weren't a lefty blogger myself.