1.12. Why Scapegoating Is So Common (and Seductive)

Fighters gravitate toward scapegoating because it gives them a clear enemy. But it’s convenient for people who are apathetic, cynical, or despairing too.

What’s happening in America and the rest of the world right now is threatening.

It hits us on an emotional, psychological, and physiological level.

It’s not a coincidence that the reactions we have to all these big political, economic, and social problems map pretty closely onto the fight, flight, or fright reactions that we and other animals have when we feel threatened.

The people who get angry and frustrated about what’s going on are having a “fight” reaction.

The people who become apathetic, disengage, deny it’s such a big deal, or compulsively distract themselves are having a “flight” reaction.

And the people who become cynical or despairing, and wallow in the belief that it’s never going to get better and there’s nothing they can do are having a “fright” reaction.

Reasonable people can disagree, but I’m not convinced one reaction is inherently “better” than the others. It’s just what people do when they feel threatened.

Each reaction is born out of a healthy impulse, but can easily go too far, and turn into something bad.

Fighting requires courage and directness—but often morphs into wild accusations, preemptive attacks, and scapegoating.

Flight comes out of caution and self-protection—but often turns into avoidance and selling yourself short.

Fright starts out as a sober understanding of how big and complicated our problems are—but often turns into passive helplessness.

What we’d want, ideally, is to confront our problems with all the courage, directness, caution, and sober understanding—without any of the out-of-control attacks, avoidance, or passivity. But instead, we pretty much get the worst of these three reactions.

What happens is that scapegoating, the common tactic of finding one or more groups of people to blame for all these problems, is something that appeals to and brings out the worst in all three types of reactions.

Fighters gravitate toward scapegoating because it gives them a clear enemy, a clear target to direct all their anger toward.

But it’s really convenient for people who are apathetic or cynical or despairing too, because their reactions are based on the belief that there’s no point getting involved or trying to fix things. Having a group of people they can point to who are causing all these problems, who are getting in the way of progress, and who aren’t going to change anytime soon seems to justify that belief.

The result of this is we have a lot of people who are lightly involved or not involved at all—while the people who are involved dissolve into a total mess of bickering and finger-pointing. And that mess just perpetuates the cycle, because it makes the fighters fight harder, while everybody else becomes even less inclined to get involved.

We need to get in the right frame of mind if we’re going to create real, lasting social change. And none of those states of mind is the right one.

Next week, we’ll start exploring what is.


This is the 24th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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