For a while, I had been looking for an excuse to focus my Relevant Reads series on Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell (Overlook, 2011)—my favorite book, like, ever.
Beyond what the whole title suggests, Scapegoat brilliantly illustrates our stubborn habit of not only being almost naturally compelled to convict one another, but absolving ourselves when undesirable things occur. It’s a book that shows us why and how we “scapegoat.”
PolicyMic, an excellent microcosm of blame culture, was particularly blamey this past week; check out pundit John Giokaris as he blames away at Obama for screwing up America and not saving its economy, as if he’s the only guy responsible for both (I mean, so much for the conservative principle of “personal responsibility”).
Earlier this week, PolicyMic published three equally blamey pieces, one blaming the Aurora shooter’s psychiatrist for failing to stop him (and she did try, blamers), and the other two blaming “uncontrollable desire,” “sexual urges,” and — well, for all I know — Satan for people’s “immoral” gayness (when the writers and their mic’ers could’ve easily just been blamed themselves and their sexual insecurities for making a big deal out of a whole lotta nothing). All that said, there was no way I was not going to talk about Charlie Campbell’s amazing book.
Scapegoat is about as layman-friendly and entertaining an introduction to cognitive dissonance and attribution theory as ever there could be. Cognitive dissonance is “the state of tension that arises when we hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously” (e.g., when I steal office supplies from work, I know it’s wrong yet I rationalize it because I’m a poor, unpaid intern), while Attribution Theory “states that we have an urgent need to find reasons for an event” (e.g., I’m stealing from your office because you aren’t paying me…jerk).
Campbell argues that when we act to reduce that uncomfortable dissonance, our resultant attribution oftentimes manifests itself in the form of blame. We blame to protect ourselves, and it’s a little known yet omnipresent—fundamental even—quirk of our culture if history is any indication (and Campbell’s recounting of the history of blame is staggering).
When you read Scapegoat, you may realize that our proclivity towards distributing blame seems to go hand in hand with our almost unavoidable proclivity towards doing whatever it takes to make sense of things—so long, of course, as our explanations not only come quickly (because we all know how much we love instant gratification), but sound reasonable enough as well. That lattermost distinction is important: we strive to explain our troubles, be they narrow brushes with death, natural disasters, mass shootings, or so-and-so’s gayness, in ways that are easy and convenient—except that’s a problem, for what’s easy and convenient isn’t always right.
We’re human beings. Thanks to evolution, we’ve all got the right wiring—all the wonderful potential to expand our capacity for getting things right. Too many of us, however, aren’t exactly interested in going through the trouble of doing that. We engage in the business of expanding that capacity only until we’re able to form answers that satisfy our superficial biases and prejudices. Worse yet, too many of us are just plain bourgeois; we believe in adhering to convention and consequently expect others to have those same biases and prejudices as well (what else are we doing, for instance, when we reprimand others for having no “common sense”—as if it’s etched in stone somewhere?).
In short, we’re ignorant and apathetic, commanding neither the inspiration nor the patience to be better than that, especially when faced with the choice between suffering the tedium of reading books we’ve never read and watching garbage (literally) on TLC and The Discovery Channel. Ours is a culture of copping out.
In Scapegoat’s case, Campbell’s thesis is more specific: that our history is defined by having neither the dignity nor the patience to expand our capacity for empathy. We don’t like to hold ourselves accountable; someone or something else always deserves the blame.
“We possess a strong self-serving bias that makes us feel special,” writes Campbell. “Through this we can account for our failures and protect our sense of worth.” And the worst part is that many of us think we’re smart enough to be this way; we “overrate our abilities in all sorts of ways, from intelligence to honesty.”
“Research has shown that we all think ourselves better drivers than the norm. Likewise, we are inclined to think that we are more sensitive, loyal and in possession of a better sense of humor than others. This is particularly prevalent among men, who see themselves as 5 IQ points cleverer than they are, according to psychologist Adrian Furnham.”
And even though more than a few of us would be modest enough to admit otherwise, at the end of the day, they succumb to defeatism and do little to change it while the rest remain “inclined to believe that we are all special, that we’re somehow different and ‘it won’t happen to us.’”
Somewhere along the line, we learned to be ashamed of both being wrong and owning up to wrongdoings when there is shame in neither. It’s all a part of learning and growing. Thomas Paine once said (libertarians and conservatives beware—I don’t pick and choose quotes the way you guys pick and choose, so this next one may sound a bit strange), “personal property is the effect of society; and it is impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society.” (In short, you didn’t build that). The same can be said of blame: since we’re all in this together, no one person or entity—a psychiatrist, a president, a group of incredibly flamboyant gay guys—should be held responsible for everyone else’s lot in life.
Originally published on PolicyMic (08/04/12).
Edited by Alex Marin.