The Optimal Scapegoat
By Bryan Caplan
When people complain about politics, they rarely focus on bad ideas, bad policies, or even bad situations. Instead, the typical complainer focuses on bad people. Every now and then, these bad people have proper names, like “Bush” or “Obama.” But complainers usually focus on broader groups, like “the Jews,” “the fundamentalists,” “the Democrats,” or “the Chinese.” Once a complainer picks a group, he’ll often link them to a bad idea, a bad policy, or a bad situation. But complaints about ideas, policies, and situations come and go. The groups a person complains about are far more stable than the details of his complaints.
Of course, every complainer thinks that his complaints are justified. No doubt they occasionally are. Still, when a person habitually complains about a group, it’s hard not to wonder, “Suppose there were nothing to complain about. Wouldn’t this complainer still pick a group and complain about them?” Many people love to have someone to hate. They crave a scapegoat.
None of this shows that any particular complainer is guilty of scapegoating. But it does raise an interesting question: How can you tell the difference between “people who crave a scapegoat” and “people who correctly identify wrong-doers”? My suggestion: Let’s make a list of characteristics that make a scapegoat psychologically appealing – and see how well the shoe fits. If the groups you complain about closely fit the profile of an “optimal scapegoat,” you have good reason to question your motives.
My plan: I’ll get the ball rolling, and hopefully readers will help me out in the comments. Here goes:
1. An optimal scapegoat must be someone you would dislike no matter what they do. They need to look funny, talk funny, and fundamentally rub you the wrong way. This ensures that (a) you won’t have to stop scapegoating them, and (b) you won’t feel sorry for them if you get the upper hand.
2. An optimal scapegoat must be someone widely disliked in your society. One of the main reasons to have a scapegoat is to freely complain about them; when you express anger, you want listeners to get angry with you, not get angry at you.
3. An optimal scapegoat must be nontrivial. “Murderers” aren’t a good scapegoat. They’re practically bad by definition, so denouncing them feels anticlimactic. It’s far more satisfying to pick a much broader group and complain that they’re “a bunch of murderers.”
4. An optimal scapegoat must be multifaceted. Repeatedly complaining about the same heinous acts gets boring. You want a scapegoat with its fingers in many pies, so you never run out of pretexts.
More? Please share.
P.S. If you’re tempted to self-referentially critique my position, note that “scapegoaters” make a bad scapegoat:
1. We can’t dislike scapegoaters no matter what they do. If they didn’t scapegoat, we wouldn’t have any idea who they are.
2. Scapegoaters are not widely disliked in our society.
3. Scapegoaters are, like murderers, almost bad by definition.
4. Scapegoaters are one-trick ponies.