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Why scapegoating and finger-pointing don’t help anyone © Jason Raish

Why scapegoating and finger-pointing don’t help anyone

Published: 21st May, 2019 at 09:00
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It really doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or the right or somewhere in the middle, conversation has turned from public service to public humiliation.

The last few years in global politics have been chaos; the cacophony of politicians trying to outperform each other in various absurd zero-sum conflicts – from Russian interference in the US 2016 presidential election to who was responsible for the British economic crisis – is deafening.


It really doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or the right or somewhere in the middle, conversation has turned from public service to public humiliation. International debates have reduced complicated concepts of national identity, economic stability, resource management and other high-level ideas to blaming and scapegoating.

The official line on scapegoating dates back to Leviticus, when he wrote about the practice of taking two goats, killing one as a sacrifice to the gods, then ritually burdening the other one with our sins, before banishing it into the desert and away from the apparently squeaky clean citizens of Blameville.

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Nowadays, most of us don’t keep extra goats around just in case we need to send them away. Nonetheless, politicians demonstrate on a daily basis how easy it is to blame, shame and discard people who’ve previously been close confidantes. In November 2018’s issue of the journal Religions, Prof Kathryn McClymond describes how Donald Trump has repeatedly deflected attention away from himself onto anyone who happens to cross his path, including his own son.

Here are a few tips about using this technique to get yourself out of a sticky situation. They come from Burcu Savun and Christian Gineste, two researchers who wrote about the politics of scapegoating between 1996 and 2015 for the December 2018 issue of The Journal Of Peace Research.

Number one: the best scapegoats are those who can’t fight back. Choose the powerless. Or outsiders. Or immigrants. Number two: the best time to transform these folks into the face of your problems is immediately after some kind of national threat. This primes the pump for political decision-making that loosens legal responsibility for these sorts of people. For example refugees – of any nationality – are more likely to be physically assaulted, and it’s doubtful their attackers will be punished.

But before you panic about the terrible state of modern humanity, remember, we all go through an “it wasn’t me!” phase, usually in childhood. Separating the bad thing from the self is part of what we have to go through to get a sense of personal responsibility. As we grow up, most of us learn that getting away with something may feel good, but it doesn’t bring about world peace.

So perhaps this is the moment we should take personal responsibility. Most of us have a digital platform, and a potential audience. Let’s show the politicians who are, frankly, doing a terrible job of leading by example, what it means to be an adult. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, we can accept our part in the plot, and turn down the noise.


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Social psychologist, broadcaster and journalist. She writes and broadcasts about technology and interactivity, and she presents Digital Human on BBC Radio 4. She is the author of Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You.


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