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Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Others… A Book Review

Hello readers,

As personal responsibility and self-awareness are two of my favorite topics to ponder, you can well imagine that I was immediately drawn to British author Charlie Campbell’s 2011 book, “Scapegoat”.

This brief history of blaming, shaming, and diminishing other people in order to feel better about one’s own self or group; creating cohesion at the expense of someone…or something, goes way back.  In fact, it would seem that the need to self-delude and the need to expel guilt and shame from one’s own circle of responsibility are co-evils and partners in crime. 

Mr. Campbell imputes a long history of humanity’s erroneous imagination of a pure, sinless, and painless place – of a unified humanity where there exists neither tensions nor impurities – as the probable source of the need to blame some person(s) or force on the degradation of this pure and perfect state.  If only we could each accept our own human nature.  There is no original sin – no Eden – we are simply imperfect and vulnerable.  All of us.  If life itself is beautiful and to be cherished, it is also a force to be feared and misunderstood.  This is our heritage as living beings. 

One factor that Mr. Campbell does discuss is how designating a scapegoat helps create group cohesion.  By excluding the chosen bearer of responsibility for whatever problem is tearing apart the group and causing turmoil, unity is recreated, and the needed catharsis occurs because the scapegoat is exiled from the community – shame and blame are cast out, removed – restoring purity, self-acceptance, and relief to the community. 

If we are able to look at ourselves as individuals and human beings, if each and every one of us were able to be truly honest (very difficult task for any human, since our major activities consist of “confabulating” our own existences, re- inventing ourselves and our histories each and every moment) – then we just might be able to admit that there is no perfection.  Just life itself, of which we are a part.  Is it possible for humans to accept responsibility for our own flawed state of being, for our own duality – for the chaos and order that co-exist within our DNA?

I remember an episode of the animated cartoon for adults, “Family Guy”, in which Meg, clearly the family scapegoat, is fed up and rebels against the unfair treatment she receives from her family.  A clear illustration of how the scapegoat creates group cohesion, Meg’s rebellion creates chaos in the family unit.  Lois, her mother, and Peter, her father, lose their bearings.  The family falls apart.  With a certain fatalistic grace, Meg realizes her role within the family, that her being the constant recipient of insults and disrespect for her person is the pillar that holds this dysfunctional family together.  She reverts to her original passive role, and family cohesion is restored.

Is global society then reduced to this co-dependent model?  If we all implicitly accept to blame some person, group, or animal for our problems, can we consider ourselves adults or mature beings?  I think we are still in the toddler-hood of humanity in this respect.  What is the alternative?  What is the avenue towards growth? 

It is certainly not contained within any system or philosophy.  The Communist experiment proved this.  Capitalists, Communists, or any “ists” are all created equal in their intention to bring power and wealth to a few and passive compliance to the rest of the group – all while manipulating the masses into thinking that their needs and desires are being met.  Needing to secure their privileges (not having to work much and enjoying comfort, wealth, and luxury), those at the top of the power food chain always work very hard to keep the masses ignorant or brain-washed into believing that the status quo must be maintained for their own personal safety.

 I don’t think we can escape our nature in any way.  As much as I  would like for humanity to stop denying its essential nature, I suspect that it is very unlikely for the greater majority of humans to reach a high level of personal awareness and self-responsibility any time soon.  In any event, these states of illumination and evolution must be chosen freely by those ready for them. 

It would be very nice if humans could accept globally that we are not perfect. If we could all somehow agree that all humans are vulnerable and that life is full of risks – from nature and from other humans, then we would have to find more sophisticated ways to deal with our vulnerability and fear.   It will always be challenging to live with ourselves and with one another.  If there is a God who made us and life this way, then this duality is sacred in itself.  


Fortunately or unfortunately, we have free will, and we have our natures, which are mostly run by our subconscious minds.  Even when I am trying my hardest to be aware, emotions and prejudices are always running in the background.  The power of emotion and the power downgrade of mob thinking  have extensive impact on our actions and choices.  It takes a great deal of self-work and mindfulness to not ignore these emotions but also not to be lead by them, especially when the price for thinking for oneself is very high, ie persecution, excommunication, rejection, and even possibly death.  The group is not usually very forgiving of free-thinkers.

While Charlie Campbell does devote a chapter to our most famous scapegoat of all time, Jesus, it does seem important to note that the ministry of Christianity that  developed out of Jesus’ murder is based on the erasure of our “sins”, paid for by Jesus’ blood.  This idea has always rankled me and makes my flesh curl.  Jesus, in my opinion, lived an inspirational life of personal awareness and responsibility, and he was trying to teach others to live in this manner.  This was a thankless job and still is, but a noble undertaking nonetheless.

 This terrible misrepresentation of Jesus’ life’s work seems unfair, as if his death, despite being so highly publicized, erased not only his life but also the meaning of his death.  If we can accept to examine the life of Jesus through a different lens, I think we can begin to examine ourselves and our collective responsibility for his murder. Mr. Campbell states that the general population during the time of Jesus was frightened, and that the political situation under the Roman Empire was highly unstable.  Instead of blaming the Romans for the execution of Jesus, it was easier and less frightening to blame the Jews.  God giving up his only son as a sacrifice to cleanse humanity of its sins is a very human and church driven explanation for Jesus’ death, but it is hardly an excuse.

Charlie Campbell suggests that perhaps we develop some collective purification rituals that are purely symbolic in nature (extension of the idea of sacrifice) in order to release the sense of guilt and shame people carry, especially during times of political or economic turmoil.  That may be an intermediary solution, but ultimately, I feel we each personally need to accept and let go of the idea of perfection or lost perfection that leads to this idea of shame in the first place.  There are some things we cannot control, and others for which we must claim responsibility.  In each of our hearts sits a core of light and darkness with which we each must wrestle.

Here is another very important factor in the scapegoating equation.  Cohesion in the group is most often maintained by fear and not by love or community support.  There is fear of punishment, but above all, fear of exclusion.  Mr. Campbell does not touch much on this theme in his book, but I believe this is a very important factor in this issue. Dictators, kings, rulers of all sorts are afraid of being dethroned, of losing their power.  To maintain control, they resort to all types of manipulation.  When a scapegoat is designated, whether in the family, in the workplace, in a political organization, the group leader works to make sure that the other members of the group observe the extreme punishments to which the scapegoat is subjected.  Fearing the same or worse treatment, the other underlings comply, fawning and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the leader.  They also fear to lose status and try to flatter the leader to gain support and protection.

This use of fear and manipulation is developed in the chapters on witches, a very interesting and frightening chapter of this book and of our collective human history.  Certain individuals, with the blessing of the church, were given extensive power, conducting mock trials and executing tens of thousands of people, most of them women, some men, and animals as well.  Personal grudges are often expressed in the selection of a scapegoat / witch.  Anyone who might be eccentric, haughty, creative, different in some way, could be stake-fodder. 

When reading this book, it becomes clear that much of human history is a history of terrorism: of people dehumanizing other people and terrorizing them because they themselves are afraid or feeling shameful or guilty.  It is fascinating to read how domesticated animals could be put on trial with equal rights as humans, and how pests such as insects or rodents could be excommunicated by the Church.  The details of these procedures make the book worth reading in themselves.

It is an integral part of human nature for each of us to preserve an idealized view of ourselves.  We see ourselves as more attractive, nicer, smarter than we really are.  This image allows us to wake up each morning and re-embrace ourselves and our lives.  This false image that we paint for ourselves gives us the courage to confront the challenges of life.  It is probably a biological imperative of some sort.  However, this false image also causes us to mask from our own awareness our own dark side.  And this dark side, the unexpressed duality, is indeed expressed – through projection.  In fact, we dehumanize ourselves when we suppress our own shadow.  Humans are not meant to live a life that is entirely luminous.  We are dual, ambiguous creatures.  We are not pure.

In fairy tales and folk tales, the duality is often split off into various characters.  For example, it is common to see a kind, loving mother who is deceased, replaced by a harsh and cruel step-mother.  In reality, these two women are one and the same mother.   Any real mother is both of these women, expressing various facets at different moments.  Good does not oppose evil.  Good co-exists with evil in each of us.  This is the root of self-responsibility: accepting a growing awareness that in the core of each of us as a human being, we are all both good and evil, wrestling with these aspects in each of our choices, and trying to accept and be aware of this fact.

Being a scapegoat is part of my own personal fact and life story, as it is part and parcel of the history of humanity.  I use these experiences to increase my own humanity, to raise awareness about dehumanization, and to appreciate myself and others as human beings, accepting the vulnerability and duality inherent in myself, in others, in life itself.

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