“In the beginning there was blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we’ve been hard at it ever since.” So begins Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell.
Why the need to find someone or some entity (the devil, for instance) to blame? It’s simply human nature to not take responsibility and “make it easier to live the unexamined life.”
Campbell writes in an easy-going but highly informative style that makes the reader think. For example, we learn that the term “scapegoat” has a quite literal origin. It was coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the Bible to describe the Jewish Day of Atonement ritual of sacrificing two goats. But this transference of sin was not exclusively a Jewish practice.
“Every early culture had ceremonies in which they removed sin from the community,” writes Campbell, previously Books Editor at The Literary Review. And the notion was ingrained that this sin or blame could be transferred to another entity. Sacrifice a goat, hang a witch, appease the spirits, and that should take care of inexplicable events like catastrophic weather for the time being. Convenient.
It was difficult for the Church to reconcile the fact that God was omnipotent with the fact that horrible things happened, so the Devil made an excellent scapegoat. Once persecuted, Christians became powerful and found others to persecute. Jews became “responsible” for a variety of ills, even the Black Death. In addition to these Christian and Jewish scapegoats, there is a chapter on “The Sexual Scapegoat,” which is, of course, woman. Blamed for the original sin, the misogyny continued through the witch hunts of the middle ages to explain local events, such as the death of a child or a fire. “Witches,” of course, were mostly female. The treatment of sacrificial animals is difficult to digest, but Campbell’s riveting account of the treatment of “witches” is heartrending.
And it continues today. On a private scale, where we once blamed the Devil or Fate, or a handy animal to stone or sacrifice, now we blame genes or upbringing. On a public scale, we can no longer blame Jews or Communists for problems such as our current economic woes, but there are plenty of rich bankers with fat bonuses we can blame. While some of that blame may fit, transferring censure eases the notion that we have any responsibility. It certainly cannot be our own fault for racking up unsustainable debt and blithely assuming a nice salary would be there forever and ever, amen. We need scapegoats.
“We still crave simple explanations for complex happenings,” writes Campbell. “We take false comfort in blaming others and in an age of technology where spreading these ideas has never been easier, it is perhaps an opportune time to take stock.”
If you’re one of those readers who likes to alternate your “light” and “heavy” reading, I would suggest that Scapegoat would fit anywhere in your early 2012 reading. The book gives a great deal of insight without plowing through tedious jargon. It does more than give us good water cooler or dinner conversational tidbits—it makes us stop and examine our all-too-human but non-productive tendency to find someone or something to blame. “So who is to blame, if not the scapegoat?” Campbell asks. “Well, we are, of course, for most things.”
This slim (208 pages), thought-provoking book will be published in February 2012 by The Overlook Press.