Let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness!


[Hi, this is Fred again, and I’m still trying to understand Omar Mateen and why he killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub and wounded 53 others. You remember the shootings, don’t you? Granted they were long ago, way back on June 12th, and today our free press seems to have lost interest. But before that the press settled on two or three likely scenarios to explain the disaster:

  1. Mateen’s guns were to blame, and little or no human agency was involved; therefore,  guns should be regulated;
  2. Mateen fired his weapons, but the reasons for that may not be knowable; or, least likely
  3. Mateen was an agent of ISIS, and did those killings to terrorize the rest of us.

If you read the last blog, you know that I voted for option 3, mostly because that’s what Mateen said he was doing. Options 1 and 2 were highly unlikely, I thought, because as of today, guns don’t fire themselves; generally they require a human to press the trigger; and Mateen’s reasons were obvious. He was a terrorist, and talked a lot about it on the phone.

So why did our worthy press and the current administration ignore the obvious? I mentioned this to Phil, our resident philosopher, and he just laughed. “Fred, my boy,” he said, “they’re not ignoring anything; they’re just avoiding it for the time being. What you see here is scapegoating in action. It’s a ritual in today’s politics and this is a political year. So if you’re nice to me, I’ll explain the whole business.”

Well, I’ve heard about scapegoats but don’t know much about them; and here was Phil, offering a short tutorial on creating, feeding and caring for them. At least I hope it’s short. Who could resist that?]

All right, let’s get into it. I’ll start with the simple stuff, and move on from there. The most basic reference I have is, of course, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary[2] [the COED] and in this case it works as well as anything. The COED says a scapegoat is either (i) a goat sent into the wilderness “after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people on it,” or (ii) “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings or mistakes of others.”[3]

Scapegoats in Religion

Religious scapegoating is a very old practice; it dates from Old Testament times, and is mentioned in Leviticus, apparently as a part of the Mosaic Day of Atonement.[4] I don’t know that religious scapegoating is done today, or who might practice it. And I’m not a theologian, nor do I have an opinion about whether scapegoating actually removes or reduces the sins of people who practice it. That’s between them and their God. But it seems to be a very convenient doctrine. For the price of a goat or two [see fn. 4] one’s sins are carried away and nobody suffers, except the goats. And who cares about goats, except perhaps the animal cruelty folks?

But once again, I’m not here to comment on the religious merits of anything. The point is that scapegoating is also a psychological phenomenon, and a very interesting one at that.

Freud on War

The second definition in COED is that scapegoats are, simply, people blamed “for the wrongdoings or mistakes of others.” And, it’s worth pointing out that, while the COED limits scapegoats to other people, others argue that places and things also can be scapegoated as well.[5] So why would modern people need to do any of this?

A while back we did a series of blogs on Erich Fromm[6] and, more particularly, on his view of how people offload their anger and hostilities onto others.[7] Fromm’s thinking started pretty much with Sigmund Freud who, in 1915, wrote an influential piece on war and its effects on civilization.[8] States at war, Freud said, are ruthless; they commit misdeeds and acts of violence that would “disgrace the individual man.” They lie and deceive others, abandon treaties, etc., and pursue their national interests with “rapacity and [a] lust for power,” while at the same time exhorting their citizens “to sanction [these acts] in the name of patriotism.”[9] Basically nations at war break most of the rules people are supposed to live by in peacetime.

War disrupts civilization. As children humans really are just a bundle of instincts and base passions. They civilize as they grow older, but the process isn’t easy. It’s enforced by the community. Some people internalize the rules, make them a part of their view of life; others simply go along with what the community says to avoid punishment. You might call the latter group hypocrites.[10] Nor is the civilizing process complete for any individual. “A human being is seldom altogether good or bad; he is usually good in one relation and bad in another, or good in certain external circumstances and in others decidedly bad.”[11]

Scapegoating People, Places and Things

When there is no war how do people manage their underlying instincts and base passions? Is there another outlet for them? Erich Fromm said, yes! Everybody knows “the hostile and destructive person who accuses everybody else of being hostile and pictures himself as being innocent and victimized.”[12]

People like that aren’t doing anything unusual; they’re trying to deflect attention from what they do to what others might be doing.  If they’ve internalized community standards, they’re refocusing on others to avoid their own guilt about breaking [or wanting to break] the rules. It’s an unconscious stratagem that psychologists call “projection.”

If people don’t accept the rules, and don’t feel guilty about breaking them, then they’re pointing elsewhere simply to distract the rest of us. That’s usually a conscious decision, I guess.

In either case the maneuver makes no logical sense. If my enemy is guilty of x, that doesn’t excuse me if I do the same thing. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”[13]

Anyway, that’s what I think. Erich Fromm had a different way of putting it. He said: ““What is the result [of projection]? The enemy appears as the embodiment of all evil because all evil that I feel in myself is projected on to him. Logically, after this has happened, I consider myself as the embodiment of all good since the evil has been transferred to the other side. The result is indignation and hatred against the enemy and uncritical, narcissistic self-glorification.”[14] Other psychiatrists of his time made the same point in slightly less flowery language. They said things like, “Projections form the basis of paranoid or over suspicious thinking.”[15]

So have I answered the question? What’s a scapegoat? It’s the person, place or thing on which you or I choose to project our worst traits to make ourselves feel better.[16] Rope that goat, tie it down, give it our sins and send it on its way. Poor goat, carrying all that baggage! Wait, with all those sins it has to be evil! Let’s kill it, instead!

The Orlando Tango

[OK. I see what you’re saying, but I still don’t understand why the Obama Administration wobbled all over the place when it came time to explain who did the Orlando killings and why. What was going on those first few days?]

Well, I think someone in the White House firmly believes in scapegoat theory. That being the case, he [or she] was reluctant to identify any groups that might have been involved, on the theory that the public would scapegoat them, pick on individual members, and perhaps retaliate against folks who otherwise were not involved.  In short, there might be violence. So at first they launched a counter-scapegoat operation. They attacked the guns, and not the people who had used them.

[Well, I guess that makes sense. Guns aren’t popular in parts of the country, and by launching another reform campaign the Administration might well have diverted the public from asking other, more embarrassing questions, like who was Omar Mateen and why was he allowed to run around, plotting against the U.S. for so long?]

Yes, but of course it didn’t work. On June 20th, and by popular demand, the FBI released transcripts and summaries of various conversations between Mateen and the authorities on the night of the murders. It was very clear that he was acting as an agent of ISIS. The only real question was whether ISIS had planned and supported Mateen’s operation, or whether he did it all himself. I’m sure the authorities would like to know that, and so would I.

[I also would like to know that. And tell me, since the transcripts got out has there been any evidence of widespread scapegoating of Moslems, or violence against them?]

Not that I know of.

[Then perhaps the White House should stop assuming that we’re all violent bigots out here.]

I agree. If they think that, they should stop.


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2003) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Leviticus, p. 78, n. 12. For those of you with a Bible handy, that’s Leviticus, Ch. 16, v. 10.

[2] My copy is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2005). Hereafter, this will be cited as COED at __.

[3] See COED at p. 919, scapegoat.

[4] The full Oxford English Dictionary – our version is from 1971 – describes the Jewish ritual in more detail.  “In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement, that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive  into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically  laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.” See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (1971) at Vol. II, p.2657, scapegoat.

[5] See, e.g., Salon.com, Campbell, The thrill  of blaming others (2012/01/29) available at http://www.salon.com/2012/01/29/the_thrill_of_blaming_others/

[6] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (hereafter cited as MMP? at __).

[7] See the blog of 2014/05/04, Projecting Guilt, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/projecting-guilt/ Today’s analysis borrows liberally from the 2014 post. Why not? After all, we wrote it.

[8] We have a reasonably good collection of Freud’s writings here at the Zoo. See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (3 Volumes) (Franklin Library, 1981) (hereafter, Freud at _).

[9] See Freud at Vol. 1, The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 591, 595: “The warring state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual man. It practices not only the accepted stratagems, but also deliberate lying and deception; and this too in a measure which appears to surpass the usage of former wars. The state exacts the utmost degree of obedience and sacrifice from its citizens, but at the same time treats them as children by maintaining an excess of secrecy… It absolves itself from the guarantees and contracts it had formed with other states, and makes unabashed confession of its rapacity and lust for power, which the private individual is then called upon to sanction in the name of patriotism.”

[10] See Freud, Vol. 1, at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 591, 599.

[11] See Freud, Vol. 1, at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 597.

[12] See MMP? at p. 21.

[13] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 633, n. 31.

[14] See MMP? at p. 22

[15] See Freedman, et al., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (Williams & Wilkins, 1967) at Ch. 13, Linn, Clinical Manifestations of Psychiatric Disorders, p. 553.

[16] See also University of Washington, Webb, Ernest Becker and the Psychology of World Views (1998), available at  http://faculty.washington.edu/ewebb/Zygon.pdf ; CUNY Graduate School, Frick, The Mythos of Terrorism through the Prism of Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (2003), available at http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/2003/Freud%20Greenwich%20Paper%20Mythos%20of%20Terrorism%20Etc.%20Out%20Vrs.html ; Journal of Prevention and Research, Tomei et al., The dynamic of “scapegoating”: mobbing, bullying and casting out (2014 March 4), available at http://journal.preventionandresearch.com/materiale_cic/736_1_2/6352_dynamic/article.htm