The scapegoat is one of our oldest cultural motifs. A scapegoat is a person made to bear blame that should fall on others. In ancient Jewish ritual the scapegoat was a goat on whose head the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on Yom Kippur, and which was then allowed to escape into the wilderness. According to psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause, humans have a long tradition of using people and especially children, as "poison containers" for our own unacceptable feelings and our own unresolved traumatic experiences (DeMause, 1974). If we can get someone else to act out those feelings we can often avoid feeling them ourselves.
In more primitive days, human sacrifice was a ritualized form of scapegoating. One person or a group of people would be designated to be the sacrifice to whatever deity required it, and the sacrificial victim, often a child, would be ritually killed. As Patrick Tierney has pointed out, "Our own society has child sacrifice written on our twin foundation stones-the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, son of Abraham, on Mount Moriah, and the sacrifice of Jesus, Son of God, on Mount Calvary" (p.17) (Tierney, 1989).
The psychological mechanisms that allows scapegoating are called “projection” and “displacement”. In service of getting rid of a perplexing or uncomfortable conflict, a group, led usually be a particularly fervent leader, finds the cause and the solution of the conflict in blaming someone else. Usually the target is an individual or another group who are said to represent some quality that the collective group holds responsible, projecting its own unacceptable impulse on to the other and then conveniently displacing those very same emotions.
“Uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated person is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional”(Burton, 2013).
Rather than seeing scapegoating as the inevitable consequence of "Homo necan” or, “man the killer", it may be more useful to view scapegoating as a result of repeated traumatic experience involving the entire social group. People who are repeatedly traumatized often develop learned helplessness and are then unable to defend themselves. They easily become targets for those in the social group who have been traumatized and have identified with their perpetrators. One of the reactions to helplessness is to become preoccupied with the use and abuse of power. People who become bullies are often reenacting their own traumatic experience, only this time as the perpetrator. As an increasing number of people in the culture begin responding this way, there is an increased tolerance for antisocial acts. The targeted individuals or groups will always be those who do not have as much power as those who are doing the scapegoating.
Burton, N. (2013). The psychology of scapegoating: Scapegoating is as ancient as it is deeply rooted., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201312/the-psychology-scapegoating.
DeMause, L. (1974). The evolution of childhood. In L. DeMause (Ed.), The History of Childhood. New York: Psychohistory Press.
Tierney, P. (1989). The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice. New York: Penguin Books.