Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Scapegoats do not solve problems

We must abandon the scapegoat ethos, which is becoming a habit at home and abroad, discourages self-criticism and allows us to project many of our own failings on to others

By Karen Armstrong  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: SHEU MING SHONG

Yom Kippur in ancient Jerusalem, two goats were selected and brought to the front of the Temple. One, chosen by lot, was consecrated to God and sacrificed. The other was dedicated to a mysterious figure, Azazel. The high priest laid his hands on the head of this second goat, confessed the sins of Israel, and drove it out into the desert, the haunt of demons. The community was purified by symbolically projecting its misdeeds on to a substitute, which was then expelled from the city to the "other side."

It was, perhaps, a primitive way of dealing with communal guilt, but this ritual gave us the word "scapegoat," to describe somebody who is punished for the sins of others. We needed this term, because when something goes wrong human beings have a deep-rooted compulsion to find somebody -- preferably somebody else -- to blame. There was widespread disappointment, for example, that the US's Sept. 11 commission apportioned responsibility for the catastrophe so widely and did not name and shame an individual. It would have been very satisfying to offload our fear and rage on to a single culprit, make him bear the burden of our pain, vilify him publicly and drive him into the political wilderness.

The trouble with this type of projection is that it makes all too easy to ignore our own culpability. The worrying growth of childhood obesity, for example, has been laid at the door of advertisers who promote unhealthy food. Certainly advertising has a case to answer, but even more at fault, surely, are parents who feed their children fatty, calorific food and fail to ensure that they get enough exercise. And while cigarette manufacturers must take some responsibility for smoking-related diseases, so must those who persist in a habit known to be lethal. We may not make a ceremony of it these days, but there is still a lot of scapegoating about.

The scapegoat ritual was not unique to Israel. When Greek cities of the bronze age were threatened by plague, famine, invasion or internal dissension, they would sometimes project their fear and loathing on to a pharmakos, a sacrificial victim, often a foreigner or a repulsive person. He was garlanded, paraded through the streets, whipped, driven out of town, and possibly burned alive. He had become a polluted object, who epitomized everything that the community feared. His expulsion was a catharsis, a purification that would bring a joyous relief from anxiety and restore public order. We find similar rites in Hittite and Sanskrit texts.

Some scholars have explained the pharmakos in terms of depth psychology. The scapegoat represents parts of the "shadow side" of the personality, which the conscious self finds difficult to accept and feels compelled to destroy. This could explain why US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed obsessed with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after Sept. 11, even though he had no clear links with al-Qaeda or the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Saddam was an obvious pharmakos, because he was undoubtedly a cruel, repulsive and polluting presence. But for many years he had been the protege of Britain and the US, who armed him and looked the other way when he gassed the Kurds. Saddam became an unwelcome reminder of aspects of western foreign policy that were becoming embarrassing, because our support of such rulers in the Middle East has contributed to our present predicament. Saddam was our demonic alter ego and we needed to purify ourselves from this contamination, cast him out of the family of nations, and demonstrate that he was now our polar opposite.

This story has been viewed 3626 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top