You know those reality TV shows where people yell, scream and throw chairs at each other? Two groups who hate each other insist on how different they are – text book mimetic rivals. They believe they are nothing like their rivals, but from our seat in the living room they look and act the same.
One point of all the drama is to get us, the audience, to choose sides. This happens in nearly every rivalry, on TV and off. The rivals each try to recruit others to their cause and in fact their passion is highly contagious. Soon a community can become quite polarized and paralyzed. Everyone is consumed with anger and self-righteousness. Each side believes that the only thing standing in the way of achieving their goals is the obstinate, lying, immoral guys on the other side. Instead of doing their jobs, their job becomes defeating their rival. American politics anyone?
But before things get to the point of self-destruction, the mechanism of imitation can provide a solution. Because everyone is busy blaming everyone else, sometimes an accusation gains steam. You could say it becomes popular and so more and more people begin to identify the same person as the cause of all their woes.
When a polarized community agrees they have the culprit by the throat they have found a scapegoat – someone who can be blamed for the conflict between them but most likely is no more guilty than anyone else for what is going on. The truth doesn’t matter, because the truth is not necessary for the scapegoat mechanism to work. The community does, however, experience a catharsis, a real sense of relief when the scapegoat is eliminated. Polarization and paralysis are transformed into unity and productivity. For a time anyway, until the next conflict requires another scapegoat.
No doubt you’ve seen this in action. A group gets a sense of unity and shared identity by being against someone or something. Sports teams, cliques, social clubs, cities, states and churches (sadly churches can be really good at scapegoating) can renew their bonds by expelling an expendable victim, usually someone who is already on the margins with a bit of a bad albeit undeserved reputation. No cathartic effect was ever achieved by expelling or killing someone everyone thinks is being falsely accused! That victim would arouse our sympathy and make us feel bad about ourselves.
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Our weekly newsletter creates a space to take a breath. Once we slow down, we can see the way desire, imitation, and conflict operate in our lives and in the world, and begin to create peace.
No one wants to be a scapegoater, but it’s really difficult to let go of because it does actually make us feel good. Oddly enough, the way to leave scapegoating behind is to have the courage to feel bad about ourselves. That’s what repentance involves – confessing that we were wrong coupled with a willingness to do better. But confessing to scapegoating is a real challenge because to have a scapegoat is not to know you have one. We can easily see the innocence of other people’s scapegoats, but ours look guilty as sin. The problem is that when we are most sure we have the devil by the tail is exactly when we are most at risk of making a terrible scapegoating mistake.