Gordon W. Allport

The Scapegoats




This is an extract from Chapter 15 of The Nature of Prejudice. In that book Gordon Allport examines the phenomenon of prejudice that he defines as : "an avertive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group."



They take the Christians to be the cause of every disaster to the state, of every misfortune to the people. If the Tiber reaches the wall, if the Nile does not reach the fields, if the sky does not move or if the earth does, if there is a famine, or if there is a plague, the cry is at once, "The Christians to the Lions."
Tertullian (Third century A.D.)


Choice of scapegoats

Strictly speaking, the term "minority" refers only to some group that is smaller than some other group with which it is compared. In this sense the Caucasian race would be a minority, so too Methodists in the United States and Democrats in Vermont. But the term has also a psychological flavor. It implies that the dominant group has stereotyped ideas about some smaller segment of the population which bears ethnoid characteristics, that to some degree it accords this segment discriminatory treatment, with the result that members of this segment grow resentful and often intensify their determination to remain a distinct group.

Why some statistical minorities become psychological minorities is the problem of this chapter. And a difficult problem it is. It might be stated in the form of a simple diagram:

Mere Actuarial Minorities Psychological Minorities
Designated as minorities for certain purposes but never an object of prejudice Mildly disparaged and discriminated against Scapegoats

School children, registered nurses, Presbyterians, are actuarial minorities but are not the object of prejudice. Among the psychological minorities we include many immigrants and regional groups, occupations, colored people, and adherents to certain religions.
As the diagram implies, some psychological minorities are the object of merely mild disparagement; others attract such strong hostility that we call them "scapegoats." What we have to say applies to any psychological minority, whether it is mildly or roundly abused. For the sake of simplicity we shall employ the term "scapegoat" to cover both.
This term, the reader will note, implies a specific theory of prejudice, namely the frustration theory. The implication is that some out-group innocently attracts the aggression engendered by frustrations suffered by members of some in-group. There is much truth in this theory, but we need not assume that it explains all of prejudice in order to discuss why certain groups and not others become targets for displaced aggression.


Meaning of Scapegoat

The term scapegoat originated in the famous ritual of the Hebrews, described in the Book of Leviticus (16:20-22). On the Day of Atonement a live goat was chosen by lot. The high priest, robed in linen garments, laid both his hands on the goat's head, and confessed over it the iniquities of the children of Israel. The sins of the people thus symbolically transferred to the beast, it was taken out into the wilderness and let go. The people felt purged, and for the time being, guiltless.
The type of thinking here involved is not uncommon. From earliest times the notion has persisted that guilt and misfortune can be shifted from one man's back to another. Animistic thinking confuses what is mental with what is physical. If a load of wood can be shifted, why not a load of sorrow or a load of guilt?
Nowadays we are likely to label this mental process projection. In other people we see the fear, anger, lust that reside primarily in ourselves. It is not we ourselves who are responsible for our misfortunes, but other people. In our common speech we recognize this failing in such phrases as "whipping-boy," "taking it out on the dog," or "scapegoat."

The psychological processes involved in scapegoating are complex. What concerns us at present are the sociocultural factors involved in the selection of scapegoats. Psychological theory alone will not tell us why certain groups are scapegoated more than others.

In each of six separate years -1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1913,1914 - over a million immigrants came to the United States. The resulting minority group problems were legion, but in the course of a few years most of them began to iron themselves out. The great bulk of this influx was made up of adaptable people, eager to become Americans. The melting pot commenced to swallow them up. In the second generation the assimilation was partly, though not entirely, complete. It is estimated today that there are approximately 26 million second-generation Americans. To some extent this enormous group still suffers certain (gradually diminishing) handicaps. Many, speaking a foreign language at home, find their knowledge of English less than complete. They are ashamed of their parents, who still seem foreign. The sense of social inferiority in status is haunting. Usually they lack a reassuring pride in the ethnic traditions and culture of the parent. Sociologists have discovered a relatively high crime rate and other evidences of maladjustment in second-generation Americans.

Yet most of the psychological minorities arriving from Europe have rubbed along amicably enough in the elastic social structure of America. Occasionally they have been scapegoats, but not persistently so. Yankees in a conservative Maine community may discriminate socially against the Italians or French-Canadians who live there - but the snobbery is relatively mild, and one can seldom see evidences of actual aggression (true scapegoating). On the other hand, a much more serious problem of antagonism exists in the case of other minorities (Jews, Negroes, Orientals, Mexicans) to whom the dominant majority has said, "We shall never accept you as one of us."

Just as it is impossible to tell clearly when a group is a scapegoat and when it is not, so too we cannot find a clear formula that will cover the selection of scapegoats. The essence of the matter seems to be that different groups are singled out for different reasons. We have already noted the contrast between the accusations made against Negroes and Jews, and have discussed the theory which states that each of these two scapegoats "take away" different kinds of guilt.

There seems to be no such thing as an "all-duty scapegoat" although some groups come nearer to this objective than others. Perhaps today Jews and Negroes are blamed for the widest variety of evils. We note that these are inclusive social groups consisting of both sexes (and their children), which transmit social values and cultural traits. They are more or less permanent, definite, and stable. By contrast one finds many ad hoc scapegoats who are blamed for quite specific things. The American Medical Association or the Soft Coal Miners Union may be much hated by certain portions of society, being blamed for evils in health policy, labor policy, high prices, or some particular inconvenience for which they may or may not be partly responsible. (Scapegoats need not be lily-white in their innocence, but they always attract more blame, more animosity, more stereotyped judgment than can be rationally justified.)

The nearest to the all-duty scapegoat then is a religious, ethnic, or racial group. Having permanence and stability, they can be given a definite status and stereotyped as a group.


Historical Method

These various generalizations still do not bear on one principal question: why over a given period of time is one particular ethnic, racial, religious, or ideological group made to suffer more discrimination and persecution than can be rationally accounted for by its known traits or deserved reputation?

It is chiefly the historical method that helps us to understand why over a course of years scapegoats come and scapegoats go, and why there is a periodic lessening or intensification of the hostility they receive. Anti-Negro prejudice today is unlike what it was under slavery; anti-Semitism, the most persistent of all prejudices, takes a different form in different epochs and waxes and wanes according to circumstances.

Anti-Catholicism in the United States today exists but in a less aggravated form than sixty years ago. At that time there flourished the so-called American Protective Association, a militantly anti-Catholic organization. Around the turn of the century the Association died out, and at the same time - for reasons that are not clear - anti-Catholic feeling seemed to subside. Even the great waves of immigration of European Catholics did not revive the persecutions of the 19th century. In very recent years, however, alarm at the alleged rise in the political influence of the Roman Church seems again to be increasing. The tide of prejudice may again be on the flood. Only a careful historical analysis can give us an understanding of these waves.
Since the problem of the choice of scapegoats is primarily one for the historical method, we shall work as the historian works, and focus upon concrete cases.


Jews as Scapegoats

Anti-Semitism is thought to reach back at least to the fall of Judea in 586 B.C. When the Jews were dispersed, they took with them their relatively rigid and unbending customs. Dietary laws prohibited them from eating with others; intermarriage was forbidden. They were even by their own prophet Jeremiah considered "stiff-necked." Wherever they went their orthodoxy presented a problem.

In Greece and Rome - to mention only two of their new homelands - new ideas were welcomed. The Jews were received as interesting strangers. But the cosmopolitan cultures which they entered could not understand why Jews did not reciprocate the meals, games, and gaiety of their own pagan life. Jehovah could easily be fitted into the galaxy of gods who were worshipped. Why could not the Jews accept the pantheon? Judaism seemed too absolute in its theology, ethnic customs, and rites.

Among these rites that of circumcision probably caused much consternation. The symbolism (circumcision of the spirit) was not comprehended. The butchery seemed, rather, a barbaric practice, a threat to manhood. How much unconscious fear and sexual conflict this rite has aroused in the minds of non-Jewish people throughout the centuries is impossible to say. The intimacy of the "castration threat" may play a large, if unconscious, part in the abhorrence of things Jewish.

Yet in Ancient Rome it is fairly certain that Christians were persecuted more vigorously than Jews. Tertullian, in the passage cited at the beginning of this chapter, gives a terse record of the scapegoating of Christians. Until the 4th Century when Christianity became the officially dominant religion under Constantine, it is probable that the Jews fared relatively better than the Christians. But after that time the Sabbaths were separated, and the Jews became a highly visible group marked off from the Christians.

Since the early Christians were themselves Jews, it took the first two or three centuries of the Christian era for this fact to be forgotten. Then only did the accusation arise that the Jews (as a group) were responsible for the Crucifixion. Subsequently, for centuries it seems that to a large number of people the epithet "Christ killer" was a sufficient cause for scapegoating the Jew on any and all occasions. Certain it is that by the time of St. John Chrysostom (Fourth Century) elaborate anti-Semitic homilies were preached, accusing Jews not only of the Crucifixion but of all other conceivable crimes as well.

Some support for anti-Semitism is drawn from straight Christian theological reasoning. Since the Bible explicitly asserts that the Jews are God's chosen people, they must be hounded until they acknowledge their Messiah. God will punish them until they do so. Thus their persecution by Christians is ordained. It is true that no modem theologian would interpret this situation to mean that an individual Christian is justified in acting unfairly or uncharitably toward any individual Jew. Yet the fact remains that God acts in mysterious ways, and apparently His concern is to bring recalcitrant Jews, His chosen people, to acknowledge the New Testament as well as the Old. While modern anti-Semites are certainly not aware that they are punishing the Jews for this particular reason, from the theological point of view their conduct is understandable in terms of God's long-range design. .

It is necessary to stress these religious factors in anti-Semitism, for the Jews are above all else a religious group. It may be rightly objected that many (perhaps most) Jews today are not religious. While orthodoxy has declined, there has been no decrease in persecution. Further, it may be objected that in present-day anti-Semitism the sins of the Jews are said to be moral, financial, social; religious deviance is seldom mentioned. All this is true - and yet the vestiges of the religious issue certainly persist. The Jewish religious holidays make for visibility; so too the imposing synagogues in Jewish residential districts.
Still, many people today are indifferent to the specifically religious quarrel between Judaism and Christianity. Many more are able in their own minds to transcend it, realizing well the essential unity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But, according to a broader interpretation of the matter, each one of us is still affected by the epic quality of spiritual ferment in Jewish culture. Jacques Maritain, the Catholic scholar, expresses the matter thus:

Israel. . . is to be found at the very heart of the world's structure, stimulating it, exasperating it, moving it. Like an alien body, like an activating ferment injected into the mass, it gives the world no peace. . . it teaches the world to be discontent and restless as long as the world has not God, it stimulates the movement of history.

A Jewish scholar continues the argument: the Jews as a group are no larger than certain unheard of tribes in Africa. Yet they have provided continuous spiritual ferment. They insist upon monotheism; upon ethics; upon moral responsibility. They insist upon high scholarship; upon closely knit home life. They themselves aspire to high ideals, are restless, and ridden by conscience. Throughout the ages they have made mankind aware of God, of ethics, of high standards of attainment. Thus - though imperfect in themselves - they have been the mentors of the world's conscience.

On the one hand people admire and revere these standards. On the other hand they rebel and protest. Anti-Semitism arises because people are irritated by their own consciences. Jews are symbolically their superego, and no one likes to be ridden so hard by his superego. Ethical conduct is insisted upon by Judaism, relentlessly, immediately, hauntingly. People who dislike this insistence, along with the self-discipline and acts of charity implied, are likely to justify their rejection by discrediting the whole race that produced such high ethical ideals.

Jews, partly at least because of their religious deviance were excluded in many countries for long period of time owning land. Only transient and fringe occupations were open to them. When the Crusaders needed money, they could not borrow from Christians (whose code did not allow usury). Jews became the moneylenders. In so doing they invited customers but also contempt. Excluded not only from land-owning but also from handicraft guilds, Jewish families were forced to develop mercantile habits. Only moneylending, trading, and other stigmatized occupations were open to them. This pattern has to some extent persisted. Occupational traditions of the European Jews transferred to new lands when Jews emigrated. To some extent the same discrimination barred them from conservative occupations.. They were again obliged to develop the fringe activities where risk, shrewdness, enterprise were required. We have seen how this factor led large numbers of Jewish people, especially in New York City, into retailing, theatrical ventures, and professions. This somewhat uneven distribution on the economic checker-board of the nation made the Jewish group conspicuous; it also intensified the stereotype that they work too hard, make lots of money, and engage in shady dealings in the less stable occupations.

Looking backward once more over the historical course of events, we find another consideration of importance. Lacking a homeland, the Jews were regarded by some as parasites upon the body politic. They had certain attributes of a nation (ethnic coherence plus a tradition of nationhood). But they were, in fact, the only nation on earth without a home. People who distrusted "bi-loyalty" accused them of being less patriotic, less honorable within their adopted land than they should be.

A further factor to be noted is that the insistence upon scholarship and intellectual attainment is a long-standing mark of Jewish culture. Jewish intellectualism calls to mind one's own defects of ignorance and laziness. The Jews once more symbolize our conscience, against whose pricks we protest.

Surveying such a welter of historico-psychological factors, one naturally wonders whether there is a leading motif that would sum them all up. The nearest approach would seem to be the concept of "fringe of conservative values." The expression, however, must be understood to cover not only deviance in religion, occupation, nationhood, but likewise departure from conservative mediocrity: conscience pricking, intellectual aspiration, spiritual ferment. One might put the matter this way: the Jews are regarded as just far enough off center (slightly above, slightly below, slightly outside) to disturb non-Jews in many different ways. The "fringe" is perceived by conservative people to represent a threat. The differences are not great; indeed, the fact that they are relatively slight may make them all the more effectively disturbing. Again we cite "the narcissism of slight differences."

This analysis of anti-Semitism, historically considered, is far from complete. It is intended only to demonstrate that, without historical perspective, we cannot tell why one group rather than another is the object of hostility. The Jews are a scapegoat of great antiquity. And only the long arm of history, aided by psychological insight, can reconstruct the story.

The problem is exceedingly complex, but it will never be solved unless there is at every stage scrupulous regard for factual evidence, concerning both the traits of the Jewish group and the psychodynamic processes of anti-Semitism.


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