Scapegoating

The Lamb & Flag pub in Oxford

The ego defence of displacement plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated person is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional. A good example of a scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called L’Autre-chienne – a pun playing on Autrichienne (Austrian woman) and Autre chienne (other bitch) – and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette came to France to marry the then Dauphin [1], the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young foreign princess quickly became the target of the people’s mounting ire.

A more recent example of a scapegoat is the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. In November 2011, Berlusconi quickly became the fall guy for the panic engulfing the Euro Zone, with forces both within and without Italy contriving and ultimately succeeding in having his government deposed in favour of an unelected cabinet of technocrats. Berlusconi’s roguish behaviour in both private and public matters could hardly have helped his case; even so, it did seem rather irrational to lay the blame for an international financial crisis onto the shoulders of a single person, albeit a hapless Prime Minister of Italy. As one commentator very succinctly put it, ‘Don’t turn a scoundrel into a scapegoat.’

A ‘scapegoat’ usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or daemons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized, objectified, and totemized; some, such as witches in mediaeval Europe, are quite literally daemonized. The dehumanization of the scapegoat makes the scapegoating more potent and less guilt inducing, and may even lend it a sort of pre-ordained, cosmic inevitability.

The term ‘scapegoat’ has its origin in the Old Testament, more specifically, in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, according to which God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat. The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is said to have exclaimed, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). And in Christian imagery, Jesus is often depicted as the victorious Lamb of God of the Book of Revelation, with one leg hooked around a banner with a red cross – whence the name of one of Oxford’s most celebrated public houses, The Lamb & Flag. The sacrifice prescribed in the Book of Leviticus prefigures that of Jesus, who played the role of the first goat in his human crucifixion, and the role of the second goat, the scapegoat, in his divine resurrection.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


[1] The Dauphin of France or, strictly, Dauphin of Viennois, was the title carried by the heir apparent of the throne of France, and is roughly equivalent to the English Prince of Wales or Spanish Prince of Asturias.

Leonardo, Homosexuality, and Sublimation

The Italian renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who is currently the focus of the art world, arguably sublimed his homosexuality into his art.

Leonardo never showed any interest in women and even wrote that heterosexual intercourse disgusted him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he never married, and chose instead to surround himself with beautiful young men, in particular Salai (a nickname meaning ‘little devil’) and Melzi, both of whom Leonardo included in his last will. In 1476, at the age of 24, Leonardo was twice charged with sodomy, even though the charges were dropped for want of witnesses.

As in his life so in his art: Leonardo drew many more male than female nudes, and gave much more careful attention to the male sexual organs. Many of the figures in his paintings appear androgynous, especially the John the Baptist (pictured) who, complete with the fine curls of Salai, looks nothing like the biblical cousin of Jesus and everything like Salai or, indeed, Mona Lisa. There is also a drawing entitled The Incarnate Angel from the school of Leonardo that appears to be a humorous take on the John the Baptist, depicting John (and therefore Salai) with an erect phallus. Salai’s name is even inscribed – and has at some point been crossed out – on the back of the picture.

Then, in the famous Last Supper, Leonardo painted a female figure, often interpreted as Mary Magdalen, in the privileged position to the immediate right of Jesus. However, it is generally understood that it is in fact St John who occupied this position. In the Bible, John 13:23, it is written (presumably by John himself), ‘Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.’ And again at 21:20, ‘Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?’ In his Spritual Friendship, St Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx in the 12th century, contrasts St John with St Peter. To Peter, he says, Jesus gave the keys to his kingdom, but to John ‘he revealed the secrets of his heart’. ‘Peter … was exposed to action, John was reserved for love.’ Whatever the relationship between Jesus and St John, for Leonardo to have placed a female figure in the place of St John, all the more in a painting of the Last Supper designed for the dining hall of a monastery[1], might be thought of as rather more than just a mistake.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


[1] The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

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