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.

Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from