Dr. Alexander Douglas talks about the origins of scapegoating and the social and political function it serves.

Producer: Lauren Shields
09/17/2020 • 01:14 PM EST

Dr. Alexander Douglas, lecturer in History of Philosophy at the University of London's Heythrop College, discusses the historical origins of scapegoating and, citing René Girard's work, explains how the scapegoat serves a social function. He then details what the targets of scapegoating typically have in common and explains why scapegoating can be such an effective political tool.

0:00: Lauren Shields:

With us today, we have Dr. Alexander Douglas, who's going to talk with us about scapegoating. Dr. Douglas is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, with a focus on early modern philosophy and the philosophy of economics. Alex, thank you so much for joining us.

0:15: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here

0:17: Lauren Shields:

In your article. You talk about the origins of the term scapegoating. Can you summarize that for us here?

0:24: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

Yeah. The term scapegoating is originally derived from William Tyndale's translation of the Bible. There's a passage in Leviticus where the story is that the Hebrew tribe would gather together two goats. And one goat would have all the sins of the tribe somehow pinned upon it, metaphorically, pinned upon it. Another goat would be sacrificed, and the goat with the sins would be sent out into the wilderness to carry them away, where it would supposedly expire. So, we don't know for sure what the meaning of the story was. We don't know why there were two goats and why one was sent away.

In many romance languages, the term used for what we call the scapegoat is something like the emissary goat, the messenger goat. In French, it's le bouc émissaire. Tyndale for various reasons decided to create the term scapegoat. And so, this term is now what we use to talk about anybody that becomes a vessel to somehow carry away blame or to absorb blame from a society and to remove it.

1:45: Lauren Shields:

And what do the targets of scapegoating tend to have in common?

1:50: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

One of the most important theorists or scapegoating in recent times is the late René Girard, literary scholar, and anthropologist, and he identified what he called "stereotypes of persecution." But to understand these, you kind of have to understand how he thought the scapegoat served a social function. The idea was that, if you think about the story in Leviticus, the Hebrew tribe goes through this ritual, or at least the event that, he thinks that these rituals are based on an event that really happened, that happened spontaneously. What happens is you have a community where people are at each other's throats, there's been a crisis of some kind. It doesn't matter what the crisis was, but everybody starts blaming everybody else. Aggression feeds on aggression and the community is at risk of simply falling apart due to internal conflict.

And then something happens that almost seems miraculous. Somehow everybody's blame, instead of being directed, diffused throughout the community, starts to concentrate on one particular target. And then the solution to the community's problems become simple. You just locate this target, which has become the source of all society's problems, you know, taken on the blame in the same way that the goat took on all the sins of the community. And it can then be expelled sent away or killed. And for a time, it feels like the community has resolved its problems, because all of the resentment that was felt is temporarily suspended. Because people really do think that the cause of all their problems has been taken away. Of course, what happens is the problems turns out as ever, recur. And then it's necessary to repeat the ritual. But that was Girard's explanation of how scapegoating worked.

So, to answer your question, the fundamental features of the scapegoat, the scapegoat has to be somebody who the community can unite against and who can be expelled or destroyed without creating a new crisis, which means it needs to be somebody very isolated. Somebody who, nobody in the community will stand up to defend. Otherwise in expelling the scapegoat, you'll just create a new social division between those who take the side of the scapegoat and those who are united against the scapegoat.

4:34: Keren Binderman:

Do you believe that in creating scapegoats, political leaders can elevate their own popularity and status by virtue of the contrast they created between themselves and the scapegoat?

4:45: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, you know, René Girard who I was drawing on thinks that the origin of a lot of our social institutions really lies in this practice of scapegoating, because when a society is in the process of forming, all the distinctions are a bit mixed up. And in times of crisis, you know, distinctions get mixed up as well, as traditional categories don't quite work anymore. One of the things that singles out scapegoats, especially, this I thought particularly interesting from Girard, is people who fail to fall into the categories that we expect them to or are difficult to classify.

And so, one thing that politicians can exploit is, they can seem like they're restoring order to the world, in a way, and the people feel confused about categorizes. You know, they don't know what to think. They don't know what side to take. And if someone can just make an act, you know, a nice sort of clean distinction between the sorts of people we want in society, the sorts of people we don't want. They can say these are the elements we want to expel; these are the elements we want to preserve, then it provides us reassuring sense of collective self-identity, a very, very powerful political tool.

6:06: Keren Binderman:

All right. Thank you.

6:08: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

No, thank you. Great question.

6:10: Lauren Shields:

It looks like we're out of time for today. If you would like to know more about Alex, you can find him on Twitter at, @alexxdouglas, all lowercase and at AXdouglas.com. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today.

6:23: Dr. Alexander Douglas:

Yeah. Thank you so much. All of you.