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Arthur D. Colman Headshot

Evil and the Scapegoat

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Philip Zimbardo's work on prisoner abuse is legendary. What he showed is that volunteers placed in even mildly coercive environments can do great harm, including inflicting pain and humiliation on their peers -- people just like them. Zimbardo doesn't blame individuals. He blames the situation, the social context that pushes even well-meaning individuals across the line from reasonable behavior to the more diabolic. To the evil side.

Yet on a deeper level, Zimbardo's study offers a controlled-group experiment that documents the psychological evil that humans have wreaked upon one another since ancient times, scapegoating.

As the leader of the "situation," Zimbardo set himself up as the facilitator of the scapegoating. The scapegoats were the students on both sides, who had to live with the trauma of what had been done to them and of what they had done to others long after the study was publicized. (To discover that evil lurks in oneself is a harrowing experience.) Yet, as is usually the case, the leader, or here, the experimenter, escaped the ramifications of how events played out emotionally. Zimbardo got famous.

Cut to a real prison, Abu Ghraib. There, ordinary soldiers, most of them volunteers like Zimbardo's students, were capable of doing great evil. The key to their "taking the gloves off" was the strong cues they got from their leaders, officers, the CIA and on up the chain of command -- cues that allowed the soldiers, and in theory Zimbardo's students, to cross the line and torture enemy prisoners. The scapegoats at Abu Ghraib were the soldiers (and certainly, in the larger social-psychological context of war, the prisoners) who committed the atrocities; their leaders, who were equally or more responsible for the group torture, were not put on trial.

Scapegoating is a group phenomenon, as I've written about extensively throughout my career and in my book, Up from Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups. All groups, in an effort to maintain their core values as a functioning unit, seek to banish those that they perceive to be the weakest links -- people that they believe, on both a conscious and unconscious level, will dilute or harm their cohesiveness and thus their (group) strength and survival.

In a scapegoating group -- meaning most groups -- the buck stops with the victims, the scapegoats, not with the group leader, the commanding officer, the policymaker, the boss, the parent.

Groups are brilliant at finding their weak links: the difficult person, the odd-one out, the member with the "wrong" skin color or sexual orientation, gender or religion, the too smart, too rich or too poor one. And it's very difficult to be the one who stops a scapegoating group, to be the whistleblower, because through this courageous action he or she immediately becomes the next victim in what is the eternal, infernal circular human activity of creating and destroying that which represents group disharmony and disarray -- other humans, our scapegoats.

Creating scapegoats is not without its hazards to the perpetrators or community at large. Scapegoating is at the root of revenge. Take mass murderer Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman described by professionals as having had a serious mental disorder. We hear about how his isolating behavior led to alienation in the classroom.

Most of us can imagine how someone with Lanza's emotional and social problems might have been treated in school. Perhaps there was a modicum of understanding and consideration bestowed by parents, teachers and student leaders. Yet almost certainly he wasn't really included in the social world of his peers; probably along with the real isolation there were periods of ridicule, hazing and bullying, all incredibly punishing to any child, particularly someone like Lanza, already so burdened by his own mind.

Lanza's illness led to his becoming a scapegoat. And like many scapegoats he obviously never got beyond his understandable obsession with revenge. But unlike most in his position, he acted on his obsession. In truth, revenge acted out in the mind initially works. It gives victims a way of focusing their humiliation and self-blame externally, instead of taking and dangerously storing everything internally. Very rarely do these victims become mass murderers as a way of getting even. Yet and in fact, revenge has a terrible way of evolving among the few who do succumb to its powers.

Consider Kachadur Manukian, the 25-year-old Syrian rebel recently profiled by photojournalist Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini, who said of the government, "They killed my mother and father. I will kill them with my knife. I will kill them like I would kill a goat." Evoking the goat here is more than cultural; it is the raw response of the scapegoat banished to the desert of victimization -- and so begins the immediacy of revenge, to the perpetrator an act both horrible and thrilling. The oft-quoted aphorism "revenge is best served cold" doesn't apply here.

Many of our heroes -- Nelson Mandela, Gandhi -- and our messiahs, for Christians, Jesus Christ -- were scapegoats. -- Arthur D. Colman

Anthropologists tell us that human sacrifice represents humanity's first and most important "group" ceremony. Those sacrificed were the scapegoats who appeased the gods for the group's transgressions. Stanford University philosopher René Girard posits that scapegoating is a successful way of averting group violence on an even larger scale -- a psychological venting mechanism of sorts.

The paradox is that while scapegoating can and does cause great pain, it may also be the way groups grow and change -- for the good. Individuals, too. The archetype of the scapegoat contains more than victimage. Add the elixir of reflection to a scapegoat's ordeal and they can be inspired to evolve beyond simple revenge to something more complex, which may include small acts of courage and compassion leading to individual transformation, or very large acts leading to changing the world. Many of our heroes -- Nelson Mandela, Gandhi -- and our messiahs, for Christians, Jesus Christ -- were scapegoats.

As Zimbardo's study illuminated, we're all capable of exacting the psychological evil of scapegoating on others. But we're also quite capable of rising far above it.

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