The Role of the Scapegoat in Society

When rereading the book, Our Right To Drugs: The Case for a Free Market, by Thomas Szasz, I came across a passage about the role the scapegoat plays in drug prohibition. Szasz sees the role of the scapegoat as a central role in society for excluding and abusing certain unwanted people. In his books, the Manufacture of Madness, and Ceremonial Chemistry, he further explores the role of the scapegoat mechanism in society. In the past, he says, we scapegoated witches (weird women), homosexuals, and mastrubators (self-abusers). Now, we scapegoat self-medicators (drug-abusers), people who beat to their own drum (the mentally ill), those who chose medicine not sanctioned by the state, or the unvaccinated.

In Our Right to Drugs, Szasz writes:

Although in his important study, The Scapegoat, Renè Girard does not refer to drugs as scapegoats, he remarks — apropos of our scientific progress from the Middle Ages to the present-that “frequent references to poisons” has remained a constant feature of the imagery and rhetoric of scapegoating. “Chemistry,” he concludes, “takes over from purely demoniac influence.” The chemistry that takes over, I would add, is not pharmacological chemistry, but ceremonial chemistry.

In Ceremonial Chemistry I tried to show that we cannot understand the War on Drugs without taking seriously the scapegoat function of so-called dangerous drugs — a suggestion that, because it presents an obstacle to the arguments of both the opponents and the supporters of drug prohibition, both have ignored. I contend, however, that without recognizing the importance of this theme for drug prohibition, there can be no informed discussion of drug controls, much less an end to the War on Drugs.

The scapegoat’s social function of saving the group by its victimization is clearly articulated in the Gospels. The scene is as follows. Jewish society feels itself to be in mortal danger: “The Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” What is there to do? How can the community save itself? By sacrificing one of its members. Caiaphas, the high priest, addresses the congregation: “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”

Like a few defiling the Torah, or a Christian the Host, an American using an illicit drug is guilty of the mystical crime of profanation — a transgression of the strictest and most feared taboo. The drug abuser pollutes himself as well as his community, endangering both. This is why, while to the secular libertarian the drug abuser commits a “victim-less crime” (that is, no crime at all), to the normally socialized person he is a dangerous defiler of the sacred. Hence, his incapacitation is amply justified. After all, what greater good is there than saving the family, the clan, the nation, indeed the whole world from certain destruction?

Thomas Szasz, Our Right to Drugs

The above passages made me think more about the role of the scapegoat in society. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Renè Girard and his ideas. On my podcast, I spoke with David Gornoski, who hosts a podcast, called Things Hidden. His podcast name is a nod to Girard and a reference to Jesus speaking in Matthew 13:35, “This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”

In Girard’s book, The Scapegoat, he examines stories of the Bible from an anthropological perspective. He tries to elucidate the role the scapegoat played throughout history by comparing the stories in the Bible to various religious and mythological texts throughout the ages. Girard believes that he is doing a type of science that can be proven or disproven. His thesis is that the scapegoat reduced violence throughout history.

Instead of having to endure the violence of all-against-all, we control our urge for violence by singling out one human or animal to blame for our problems and direct our violence towards him or it. But, Girard maintains that the scapegoat mechanism no longer works because Christ exposed the idiocy of the scapegoat. Girard says that this is what the Centurian guarding Jesus meant when he remarked in Matthew 13:35, “Surely this man was the son of God!” Because Jesus, an innocent man accepted the role of the scapegoat, he turned the scapegoat mechanism on its head.

In an interview with CBC radio Girard said:

They kill him [Jesus], and it doesn’t do any good… Satan is duped by the cross.

Satan duped by the cross comes from the first sentence in the first letter to the Corinthians of Paul. And this sentencence – it’s just so powerful – that if the powers, if the kings of this world, which means the same thing as powers and principalities, and the same thing as Satan, so let’s say, if Satan had know the consequences, he would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.

The meaning of this sentence is incredibly important to me. What does it mean? It means Satan has been fooled into triggering the sacrificial mechanism. Why? Because he thinks the mechanism is going to remain hidden as usual, that no one will see that the victim is innocent, that his accusation will work as it always does. Therefore Satan, doesn’t realize the truth that is going to come out of the cross. It’s a very importance sentence.

From this sentence that fathers of the Church developed the thesis that Satan was duped by the cross. And it’s a very powerful thesis. Some of them even had a metaphor as God as a fisherman, and the bait being Jesus, and Satan being the fish that swallows the bait and doesn’t realize he was caught. What does it mean? It means that Satan, when he kills Jesus, doesn’t realize that far from consolidating his powers, it leads to the modern world, the the revelation, to the more and more complete revelation all the time.

Renè Girard on CBC radio.

You can listen to the section of the interview below. I’ve linked to timestamp 2:23:16.

Girard sees the undoing of the scapegoat mechanism as paving the way for modernity and the scientific revolution. He believes the stupidity of the scapegoat mechanism has slowly tickled down through time. In, The Scapegoat, he writes:

The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in the economy, is a byproduct of the profound action of the gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power, and now the process has turned against it. Believing itself a liberator, it discovers its role as a persecutor. Children curse their fathers and become their judges. Contemporary scholars discover traces of magic in all forms of rationalism and science. Instead of breaking through the circle of violence and the sacred as they imagine they are doing, our predecessors re-created weakened versions of myth and ritual.

Renè Girard, The Scapegoat

Both Szasz and Girard offer criticism of society and its erroneous use of the scapegoat mechanism. Where Girard seems to see the power of the scapegoat mechanism diminishing over time – Szazs sees it as alive and well. For the majority of his career, Szasz tried to point out the ways that the scapegoat mechanism is still at work. In his many writings, he pointed out the horrific treatments of the socially deviant/mentally ill (what he called society’s unwanted) with “medical treatments” such as lobotomy, electroshock, and psychotropic chemical straight jackets. Girard, on the other hand, is more hopeful by suggesting that Jesus’s death provides a path forward for diminishing the role of the scapegoat in society.

Further Resources

Violence and The Sacred Podcast:

A Neighbors Choice Podcast:

Titicut Follies:

One thought on “The Role of the Scapegoat in Society

  1. I think both Szasz and Girard are right. On the one hand people are waking up to the fallacy of scapegoating (as described by these two authors). On the other hand, the mentally ill are abused by medical treatment from the past to today. See our book “An Amazing Journey Into the Psychotic Mind – Breaking the Spell of the Ivory Tower “

    Liked by 2 people

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