Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People


We may have come a long way from the days when a goat as a symbol was saddled with all the iniquities of the children of Israel and driven into the wilderness, but is our desperate need to find some organization or person to pin the blame on and absolve ourselves of responsibility really any more advanced?

Charlie Campbell highlights the plight of all those others who have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, illustrating how ...

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Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

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We may have come a long way from the days when a goat as a symbol was saddled with all the iniquities of the children of Israel and driven into the wilderness, but is our desperate need to find some organization or person to pin the blame on and absolve ourselves of responsibility really any more advanced?

Charlie Campbell highlights the plight of all those others who have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, illustrating how God needs the Devil as Sherlock Holmes needs Professor Moriarty or James Bond needs "Goldfinger."

Scapegoat is a tale of human foolishness that exposes the anger and irrationality of blame-mongering while reminding readers of their own capacity for it. From medieval witch burning to reality TV, this is a brilliantly relevant and timely social history that looks at the obsession, mania, persecution and injustice of scapegoating.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this short compendium of scapegoating, Campbell wryly describes how we, as a species, are always looking to blame someone else for our misfortunes. “We still crave simple explanations for complex happenings,” Campbell writes, but these explanations have often led to tragic situations in which innocents suffer for crimes they didn’t commit. The term “scapegoat” first appeared in William Tyndale’s 1530 English translation of the Latin Bible, describing the animals sacrificed as a “sin offering” on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Tyndale, who was executed for his efforts to circumvent the clergy; Christ; witch hunts; the Holocaust; and the astonishing medieval practice of putting farm animals on trial for sorcery, all exemplify how scapegoats have been made to bear the sins of humanity. The book offers examples organized into thematic chapters (Jewish, Christian, sexual, Communist, medical), which cover ancient to modern times and show how powerful leaders and enemies of the people have always been “inextricably linked, reverse sides of a coin, one the shadow of the other.” Although Campbell is a witty and engaging writer, the book never develops an argument beyond anecdote, and stops short of delving into why primal hate continues to have so much influence in shaping culture. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In this short study, Campbell (former books editor, Literary Review) explores the human habit of blaming others. When a negative event takes place, many people experience a powerful urge to cast blame, to find a person or group to hold responsible. Campbell offers example after example of scapegoating throughout history, many of which would seem laughably absurd were they not, disturbingly, true. From literal whipping boys who received punishment for the misdeeds of child kings, to the so-called witches hunted in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the Jews blamed for the Black Death in Europe, societies have created and punished (often by execution) an astonishing array of scapegoats. Campbell spends a helpful chapter discussing the psychology of scapegoating, helping readers understand the innate human urge to blame others so as to be able to live with oneself. His humor and engaging stories draw attention to the phenomenon of blame in the hope that readers will realize humanity's collective foolishness and perhaps become more circumspect about irrationally placing blame. VERDICT An entertaining look at a disturbing sociological phenomenon. Recommended to students of human nature who want insight into this all-too-common practice.—Elizabeth L. Winter, Georgia Inst. of Tech. Lib., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A wry, entertaining study of the history of blame. The book is comprised of 14 short essays in which former Literary Review books editor Campbell discusses types of scapegoats as well as some of the psychological and social reasons why humans seem unable to break the habit of "targeting minorities and marginalized groups when things go wrong." The author claims that scapegoating "goes right back to the beginning of mankind." The earliest human cultures had rituals that professed to do away with the wrongs of entire communities and aid in the return to an imaginary state of innocence. They sometimes used animals as sacrificial victims; more often, though, these cultures used those on the social fringes--e.g., criminals, slaves, the disabled--to bear the burden of their collective sins. Belief systems seem to be at the core of all scapegoating throughout history, since most of them are built on the fundamental dualism of good and evil. The unfortunate result has been an "us versus them" mentality that is really an expression of a "refusal to accept responsibility for our actions." Campbell suggests that blame is a driving engine of histories both great and small. Not only did it bring about the Crusades and the Holocaust; it was also behind the 19th-century trial of a Great Auk charged with witchcraft. Blame is a way for creatures "who pride [themselves] on being the most intelligent life-form on earth" to make sense of a chaotic world--and reveal their ultimate stupidity. Trenchantly sardonic.
From the Publisher
"As Mr. Campbell observes in this brief and entertaining book, there might not always be a cure for what ails humanity, but there's always a culprit." —Wall Street Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590207161
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press
  • Publication date: 2/2/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

CHARLIE CAMPBELL was Books Editor at The Literary Review, where he ran the Bad Sex in fiction Prize among other things, and he continues to write for the review. He works in the publishing industry and lives in London.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 7

Introduction 15

The Word 'Scapegoat' 31

The Ritual Scapegoat 37

The King and the Scapegoat 47

The Christian Scapegoat 63

Christ the Scapegoat 73

The Jewish Scapegoat 81

The Sexual Scapegoat 85

The Literal Scapegoat 123

The Communist Scapegoat 145

The Financial Scapegoat 153

The Medical Scapegoat 161

The Conspiracy Theory 167

Alfred Dreyfus 173

The Psychology of Scapegoating 181

Conclusion 187

Notes 193

Select Bibliography 203

Acknowledgements 207

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