The Scapegoat Syndrome

The Scapegoat Syndrome

Colin McGregor   File Society

woman-1253506_1280René Girard, a writer and philosopher from France, feels that human societies are necessarily full of negative emotions.

People copy others – that’s human nature – and one person’s violence and rage can multiply, can get horribly out of control. To avoid anarchy, all societies, from the dawn of time, have organized themselves around what Girard calls a scapegoat. The community channels its aggression towards a single person on whom every single one of its problems are blamed. Get rid of this sick soul, says the mob, and all will be well again. This approach works. Tossing out the scapegoat unites everyone, dissolves all disagreements.

The community owes its order and peace to the process of proving the scapegoat is guilty. Punishing the scapegoat completes the circuit. Does it matter if the scapegoat is guilty or innocent? Guilt helps, but it isn’t necessary. One individual comes to symbolize one societal ill, or all societal ills.

The process is forever repeated: the circle never ends. If it doesn’t, says René Girard, the community falls apart. Help the scapegoat, and you too become an enemy. Friends disappear into the crowd when the accusations start. Social order depends on the vicious circle of endless sacrifice.

The Incas executed their own people to bring rain; Hawaiians threw a virgin into a volcano to stop it from erupting. A typical medieval prince, when the crops failed, would find some poor old woman living on the outskirts of town and burn her as a witch.

In George Orwell’s book 1984, the “Big Brother” state is kept together by the prospect of an unseen group of guerillas camped over the hills, waiting to attack any day now. The pages of our newspapers, the images broadcast by our media, are filled with scapegoats. As Pink Floyd once sang, “The papers hold their folded faces to the floor, and every day the paperboy brings more.”

In 1970, we Quebec Anglophones were informed that Castro had a secret base in the Laurentians where Cubans were training FLQ guerillas to invade Montreal. A man in a uniform came to my school to tell the older students just that. It brought us together. We trusted the authorities to protect us. That year in our family’s chalet in Ste. Adele, whenever we heard the sound of a hunting rifle from somewhere in the woods, my father would mutter, from under his breath: “Damn Cubans.”

Jail is packed with the people that keep communities together. Fear becomes capital: politicians blame other politicians for causing crime by being too lax, or too stern. They blame the poor; the immigrant; the woman with the veil; the young; the graffiti artist who personifies all that is wrong with Quebec, and who deserves to get run over by a train. Society’s jail is larger than the boundaries of its prisons.

A friend I’ve known since I was a small child is reluctant to visit me in jail. He is afraid he will lose his job, that his neighbors will not talk to him if they find out. He has spent his life trying to help the poor, campaigning for human rights. I don’t blame him for his reluctance.

Nobody understands this sense of exclusion more than a prisoner. We know who we are. I was once a teacher and writer, who once lived among society, trying to help, trying to pay a mortgage. I did not visit prisons when I could.

Escaping this syndrome isn’t easy. It’s in our DNA. But it can be done. Prison volunteers do it. Think of those who work with the homeless, or in battered women’s shelters, for any number of charities. There exist some brave souls who believe that, in terms of human relations, there can be attraction without repulsion.

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