Few people like to take responsibility when their lives go off the expected path and end up in a ditch. So what do we do? Instead of finding the real source of problems, we have a strong tendency to find other people to blame.
The ancient Hebrews had a practice that we get our modern word “scapegoat” from. (The word was actually a mistranslation from the Hebrew, but that’s another story.) To oversimplify it a bit, basically the Hebrews would keep a record of their sins all year and then they would “transfer” that sin to the goat — before driving it out into the desert wilderness to die alone. In this way, the people were considered to be clean from their sins.
The ancient Greeks had a practice that was a bit the same, but was closer in spirit to what we do today. When there was a disaster of some sort — famine, invasion or plague, for instance — the Greeks would choose a pharmakos, who was a slave, a cripple or a criminal who was cast out of the community as a sacrifice to quiet the gods. (There’s scholarly debate as to whether they were actually killed or simply expelled from the community.)
Throughout history, humans have chosen people to blame. When bad things happened in some communities — such as a crop failure or a baby dying — unpopular women were sometimes accused of being witches and were burned as punishment. In other cases, entire groups of people were blamed. For much of history, Jews in Europe were blamed for a variety of problems. For instance, because Jews as a group did well financially, people who didn’t do as well blamed them for their problems, ascribing all sorts of negative character traits to the more-successful Jews.
So what’s making me think of this now? I first started thinking about why the Occupy Wall Street people are so fixated on “the 1 percent” who they see as the source of their problems, and it occurred to me that it’s natural that people who are angry, scared and confused are going to look for someone to blame for their problems. They certainly aren’t generally going to look at their own decisions or even the policies they favored in government. Just as the wealthy Jewish banker was a popular target in Europe in centuries past, the modern Wall Street bankers are a convenient and simple explanation for the economic woes of today.
Beyond that, I see that various groups are looking for scapegoats. Many conservatives are looking to blame immigrants who didn’t come to this country legally for lots of economic problems. The evidence says just the opposite — that immigrants, legal or otherwise, are a net positive for the economy — but it makes people feel better to have someone to blame.
For other people, it’s various conspiracies. It’s the Masons or the Illuminati or the Rothschilds or the Rockefellers or the nefarious people from Skull and Bones. For those who are more interested in believing a narrative and finding someone to blame, the specifics don’t really matter that much. All that matters is that someone tells the tale well and with great emotion — and there’s no shortage of crazy people today who are passionately committed to selling those conspiracies. (Alex Jones and David Icke quickly come to mind.)
It’s difficult to avoid scapegoating, because it’s emotionally satisfying to find some person to blame for your woes. It’s much harder to take responsibility yourself or to accept that some abstract idea is responsible. So most people end up assuming that people they disagree with have bad motives and are intentionally taking them down the road to ruin, whether it’s George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
We are where we are today — politically and economically — because we (as a society) have accepted ideas that are dangerous and wrong. It’s difficult to get to the root of those ideas intellectually and see the errors. And it’s an unemotional process that doesn’t give us the satisfaction of assigning blame. But playing the blame game isn’t going to change anything, because rounding up the usual suspects is no better than sending a goat out to die.
As long as we continue the frustrating cycle of finding new people to blame — instead of letting other people live as they choose — we’re going to continue having the same problems. The idea of coercion is the cancer that lies at the heart of our economic and social issues. Until we deal with that, it won’t matter how many bankers or politicians we metaphorically burn at the stake.