We’re taking a short philosophical detour in this post. Its aim is to extend the argument we are making about moral panic and its ritual diminishment.
The social theory of the scapegoat has been most fully developed by René Girard.
Scapegoating has its background in the human need for the resolution of conflict. Where a conflict or societal problem arises, a group, tribe or nation looks for a place to discharge that conflict. Often a person or smaller group of people within that society or outside of it becomes that target – the scapegoat.
The scapegoat is essentially a substitute. It is necessary for the scapegoater(s) to be able to lay some form of fault or blame for the problem at hand on the scapegoat, otherwise the choice of the scapegoat would appear random and the scapegoat’s ‘sacrifice’ would not be efficacious.
But it is not necessary for the scapegoat to have actually committed any wrongdoing. Fault or blame is merely imputed to the scapegoat, and s/he becomes a convenient and necessary vessel used to transport that society’s sense of fault or self-dissatisfaction (sometimes seen as ‘sin’) out of that society.
For historical examples, think Aztec human sacrifice. Or the Jewish people under Nazism. Or, most pertinently, of the Salem witchcraft trials.
Charlie Campbell, author of Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People astutely points out that not “… every scapegoat is entirely innocent, though many are ”. But guilt or innocence is not the point here. The point is to load guilt onto a party whom then society can punish or expel.
As Campbell puts it:
“Ancient societies often kept official scapegoats, animals or humans who would be sacrificed after disaster in the hope of purifying the community and avoiding further punishment from the gods. These unfortunate figures were like lightning conductors, carrying away public anger. Or, to use a similar analogy, they are like electric fuses, which melt as the circuit becomes overloaded, and are thrown out, and replaced, so the current can flow once again… Today, we might have moved on from such barbarism, but we express the same urges in different ways. We still shriek for blood after disaster and are quick to find someone to blame for something usually far beyond the power of a single being…
We’ve seen this happen increasingly during the current economic crisis, and technology and the modern media mean that it is easier than ever before to spread these ideas and scapegoat people. We often decide on their guilt before all the evidence has emerged and social
media allows a mob to build swifter than ever before…”
In essence, this is about the imputation of guilt upon a person or group so as to assuage a collective sense of guilt and to purge that guilt from the midst of that community. It allows anger and distress to be discharged and societal order to be recovered.
Trouble is, someone pays for this with their life, freedom or future. And that person or group may not be in any sense responsible for the communal ill placed at their feet.
The Sin Eater
This thinking can be extended by looking at the rather bizarre historical phenomenon of the sin eater. When someone died suddenly and therefore without being absolved of their sins, sometimes a sin eater was employed by the family of the deceased. A piece of bread was placed on the chest of the corpse. The sin eater would consume the bread and leave the house, sometimes being ritually driven out, taking the dead person’s sin upon himself.
Because the understanding was that the dead person’s sins had actually been transferred to the sin eater, he was a figure of loathing and hatred, shunned and excluded from society .
One would like to think that society has developed beyond these strange apotropaic practices. But, arguably, these phenomena can give us insight into what’s going on today in the moral panic surrounding sexual offences.
There are some correlations to be made.
First, public moral judgement does not depend on the alleged sexual offender actually being guilty of the offences charged. In fact, that person may be guilty. But, equally, s/he may not. What’s important is that blame and disgust can be expressed towards that person.
Where a conviction results, and disgust can be expressed, then (and only then) can public anxiety at the phenomenon of sexual abuse be diffused. And out of that diffusion comes, in some quarters, a greater sense of public well being and confidence.
Contrariwise, where no conviction results, public anxiety is not dispersed, and moral panic can continue to grow and to express itself in other ways.
Second, scapegoaters never think about the demonizing effect on the scapegoat. This blog is an extended plea for balance and common sense, and all we are saying is this. When it comes to alleged sexual offences, the criminal justice system needs to be balanced and scrupulously fair. Because it is difficult or almost impossible for society at large to be. There are just too many emotions swirling around, as society’s perceived ills and anxieties get pinned onto one important but narrowly-focussed issue. Sexual offending is wrong and must be punished. But scapegoating is wrong too, and it must not be allowed to get out of hand.