Scapegoating the American Way

16 Dec

I’ve got a new post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre. It continues with the same theme I explored in my previous 3QD post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. That isn’t what I was planning when I began thinking about the post in the middle of last week, but that’s what popped up Sunday morning when I started working on it.

Over the previous week I’d been blogging about danah boyd’s study of teens and the internet, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). It seemed to me that she was developing an argument that intersected with the argument about displaced aggression and anxiety that I have derived from Talcott Parsons (“Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” 1947). On the one hand, teens have more or less been “forced” online by irrational restrictions placed on their movements on the physical world (and over-scheduling, a different phenomenon) and that adult fears about sexual predation online were exaggerated at the same time people weren’t sufficiently attentive to the real sources of sexual predation.

So, I decided to write a post that links boyd’s observations to mine on nationalist aggression and racism. In the current post I refine my statement of Parsons’ argument and use the American response to 9/11 as an example. On the one hand the nation has undertaken two destructive and expensive wars, that have failed to achieve their announced object, the elimination of terrorism, and at the same time we’ve created the Transportation Security Agency to conduct largely pointless searches of passengers boarding aircraft.

Vacuum Activity and Scapegoating

These actions strike me as being akin to what ethologists call vacuum activity: “innate, fixed action patterns of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of the external stimuli (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity.” In this case the issue isn’t so much the lack of an appropriate stimulus but the inability, for some reason, to identify the source of one’s aggressive impulses while at the same time feeling the need to act on them. So one chooses a convenient or culturally targeted object whether or not it is causally appropriate.

My point of course is that the possibility of such irrational action has a basis in our biology. In a sense that’s just a specific version of the truism that all behavior has some kind of biological basis; we are, after all, biological beings. But the behavioral patterns I’m examining aren’t widely appreciated, perhaps because we would prefer to continue our irrational behavior rather than dealing with real issues. In the context of such denial it is useful to point out that, really, this is how animals (can) behave. It’s not at all farfetched.

And in at least one instance we DO recognize such behavior, scapegoating:

Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. “he did it, not me!”), individuals against groups (e.g., “I couldn’t see anything because of all the tall people”), groups against individuals (e.g., “Jane was the reason our team didn’t win””, and groups against groups.

A scapegoat may be an adult, sibling, child, employee, peer, ethnic or religious group, or country. A whipping boy, identified patient or “fall guy” are forms of scapegoat.

The term is an ancient one:

Scapegoat derives from the common English translation of the Hebrew term azazel (Hebrew: עזאזל) which occurs in Leviticus 16:8 after the prefix la- (Hebrew לַ “for”).
And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot

“For the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.” —Leviticus, Leviticus 16:8

In ancient Greece a cripple or beggar or criminal (the pharmakos) was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster (such as a plague, famine or an invasion) or in response to a calendrical crisis (such as the end of the year). In the Bible, the goat for Azazel was a goat that was designated (Hebrew לַעֲזָאזֵֽל la-aza’zeyl) to be outcast in the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, that began during the Exodus with the original Tabernacle and continued through the times of the temples in Jerusalem.

As practiced in ancient Greece and Israel scapegoating was explicitly recognized and enfolded in ritual and religious meaning. The practices that I’ve been examining, and that boyd examines are not, however, explicitly recognized as scapegoating. That is what makes them so dangerous and counterproductive.

Clinton As Scapegoat

Though I’m not prepared to argue the point, I have the general impression that much of the ugliness in American politics over the past three decades or so is the result of displacement activities and scapegoating of one sort or another. The various “culture wars” are searches for scapegoats.

At the end of the century a good many people chose the American President, William Jefferson Clinton, as a scapegoat. In psycho-cultural terms, he was the first draft-dodging, pot-smoking, funky-butt saxophonist, and baby boomer to have been elected to the Presidency. He was also intelligent, personable, charismatic, a superb politician, and a centrist.

And he quickly became deadlocked. I have no desire to recount the Clinton Presidency, but I cannot avoid the final act, the Lewinsky scandal. That consumed a considerable portion of the national political energy during his second term and resulted in an impeachment process in the course of which Toni Morrison and others suggested that he was, at least symbolically, a black President – this, of course, links back to the cultural psychodynamics I examined in American Craziness, but also in one of my boyd posts, Escaping on a Raft in Cyberspace. In that impeachment process the people’s representatives seemed to be acting against the will of the people they represented, at least as that will was revealed in opinion polls. That, in itself, requires some analysis. But not here and now.

The impeachment effort failed and Clinton ended his term with a prosperous economy and considerable popular approval for his presidency, if not for his person. It seems that the people were able to make a distinction their representatives were not. They ended up separating Clinton’s private life, of which they disapproved, from his public, of which they seemed to approve. In any event, they could see no purpose in punishing the public man for the private sin. That I count as a significant, though as yet untested, outcome. That also requires some analysis. But not here and now.

Our current President, Barack Hussein Obama, has also been vilified for no good reason. He’s black and he’s got a name that not only seems foreign, but seems Arab, which seems to make him one of the enemy. That is, of course, crazy, but that’s how scapegoating is.

Of course, I do not think this form of craziness is uniquely American. It is not. If I’m concerned with the American manifestations of this craziness, that is 1) because I’m an American and I fear for my country, and 2) because America is so powerful that its craziness affects the world.


One Response to “Scapegoating the American Way”

  1. Charlie Keil July 19, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

    Caught up with this piece a bit late in the game. Glad to see Bill Benzon at work on “scapegoating” because I can remember Kenneth Burke telling me that “scapegoating and social class” were two processes that he was never able to explain to his own satisfaction.
    We are right to pick on Clinton and Obama for their sins of omission and crimes against humanity, but scapegoating them for foibles and fibs and (pardon the expression), trumped up accusations, is just plain absurd.

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