Animals, Culture, Politics, Religion

In Praise of Scapegoats

Oh, I don’t mean that in what’s now become the commonly-accepted sense of the word, as is regularly on display these days, or as described in The Oxford Dictionary:

“A person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.”

I mean it in the more complex and earlier sense of the word; the one with Biblical and ritualistic overtones, as in (from the same dictionary):

(Biblically) “a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it (Lev. 16)”

You might say I like to interpret the word literally, as well as seriously. And in the days when such a thing was taken literally, what came to be known as a “scapegoat” was, literally (maybe), a goat. And, on the Day of Atonement, the sins of the community were symbolically laid upon the head of that goat, whereupon the poor creature was driven into the desert or thrown off a cliff to die. At which point, the community was cleansed of those sins (only to commit new ones, over the next year, I’m sure), and its people moved on.

The English word (scapegoote) first appears in Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Bible, and as with many translations of the time, there’s vigorous debate about how he must have got it wrong, and whether or not he misread Azazel in the original, turning it into to ez ozel, meaning “the goat that departs.” Perhaps it wasn’t a goat, after all. (So, perhaps it’s not really fair to take the term “literally.” Or perhaps he got his facts wrong, but the narrative was right. Or perhaps he was more concerned with being morally right than with being factually accurate. See how this works? How easy it is? What it all boils down to is, it doesn’t matter if it was really a goat or not. It’s the thought that counts. “Truth over facts,” as Joe Biden might say.)

Subsequent translations (but not the King James) of the Bible restored Azazel (the name of a fallen angel) as the word, but by then the term was well established and often used to describe the poor unfortunate ruminant which would be blamed in the course of expiating the sin. And the process followed was always threefold: 1) Lay the sins upon the head of the scapegoat, 2) Drive the scapegoat out of the community, taking the sins with it, 3) Now, ritually cleansed of the sins, get on with life.

If only.

A recent example: It’s pretty clear that the slender shoulders of Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann served, in January 2019, as a repository for the sins of the wider community. The Left (and an unsettling number of the Right) looked at a few seconds of this young boy’s life captured on video, and saw evil incarnate. And they responded by piling upon him the sins of racism, toxic masculinity, white privilege, the patriarchy, oppression, the theft of indigenous peoples’ land, slavery, elitism, sneering, smirking, standing his ground, and any and all other sins committed by the Western Civilization they are so ashamed of and hate so much, over the past two thousand years.

Because that is how it works today. All a single one of us has to do is find the thin end of the wedge. And when we have found the thin end of the wedge, we can escalate to DEFCON 1 and start shrieking our heads off on social media, and pretty soon millions are shrieking their heads off with us. No thought, perspective, rationality, or facts required. In the case of Nick Sandmann and some of his classmates, the thin end of the wedge was a MAGA hat, a nervous grin, and an elderly (younger than me, for Pete’s sake) “social justice warrior.” Plenty to work with there. All we need. All aboard the mystery bus, and off we go!

Many in this country, on both sides of the divide, have reached a point where their political affiliation so defines them that there is little room left for kindness or tolerance for those whose affiliation is different in ways either great or small. Someone who disagrees politically, and who shows it by wearing a MAGA hat on the one hand, or by saying something critical of President Trump on the other, is the enemy, or is a traitor, or is to be shunned or booted from the camp. Look no further these days than the slew of articles, posts, tweets, and blog entries on the occasion of any major holiday, lamenting that for a few hours at Christmas and/or Thanksgiving, we will have to sit down with our relatives and assume a veneer of civility. Does our discomfort focus on our relatives’ idiosyncrasies and foibles, on Great-Aunt Matilda’s inelegant gas-passing at the dinner table, Grandpa’s awful knitted cardigan, Weird Uncle Harold’s handiness, or Granny’s lumpy gravy? No, our discomfort focuses on who they might have voted for in November of 2016, because that’s all that matters. We might have to sit down with Trumpsters, or Nevers, or Progs. Oh my! How can we possibly be civil for that long? How can we possibly survive?

Suck it up, Buttercup. As they say. Your relatives are not stand-ins for the evils of the world, or even for all those who don’t share your political beliefs. They’re your family. You can do it. Love them all. One day, they may need you. One day, you may need them. Family. (I’ve reached a stage in my own life where it’s quite evident to me that one day, that Trumpy son-in-law, or that NeverTrump niece, may be the only thing standing between me and the nursing home, and at that point, who they voted for in November of 2016 isn’t going to matter a hill of beans to me, or hopefully to them, either. Love them all. And hope they love you back.)

So. Scapegoats. I’m going to take the lesson of the Covington High School students, and the obvious scapegoating of Nick Sandmann (who I’m sure is not a perfect young man; those are in very short supply in our Western tradition, but he seems quite blameless in the encounter that brought him so much unwanted attention and which I’m using as an example here), and I’m going to suggest that we bring back the ancient and ritualistic practice of scapegoating. All of it. Because we’re doing it wrong.

Scapegoating only really works if we can get past the first step. Piling the sins of the world on Nick Sandmann’s (or Whitey’s, or anyone’s) shoulders is all well and good, but then what? Well, typically, nothing. We wait until the next outbreak of mass-hysteria, and the next labeling as “evil” of someone at the lower reaches of the intersectionality hierarchy, and we start all over again. And so on and so on. Lather, rinse, repeat. Things never get any better, the sins are never expiated, and we live amidst the crushing guilt and the cycle of perpetual outrage forever.

Here’s what I recommend 1) Find a scapegoat and pile the sins of the world onto its shoulders. 2) Fire your scapegoat off in a rocket ship to Mars (this is the twenty-first century, after all), thereby expiating all the world’s sins, which have left with the scapegoat. 3) (This is the part that takes some guts): Move on (without the dot org). Gosh. Parts of this sound awfully familiar.

The first part is the only one that worries me a bit. I don’t want any human or animal to be hurt in this process (this is the twenty-first century, after all). I know! Maybe Amazon can help:

Meet Scout. Your new scapegoat. Sounds like a plan to me.

I can’t fix the problems of the world. All I can do, and all any of us can do, is our best to fix our little part of it, by loving, and trying to do our best for, our family and our friends. So I do.

(originally posted on

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Scapegoats”

  1. So pleased you clarified this at the end. I was fearful you really intended to sacrifice a goat. There’s plenty of people I’d gladly sacrifice – but no goats!.

    1. Most definitely not sacrificing a goat! I’d be in the doghouse (goathouse?) if I did, as I don’t think “my” goats out there in the field would take it well . . .

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