In the Old Testament, a goat that was symbolically burdened with the sins of the people and then killed on Yom Kippur to rid Jerusalem of its iniquities. Similar rituals were held elsewhere in the ancient world to transfer guilt or blame. In ancient Greece, human scapegoats were beaten and driven out of cities to mitigate calamities. In early Roman law, an innocent person was allowed to assume the penalty of another; Christianity reflects this notion in its belief that Jesus died to atone for the sins of mankind.
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The scapegoat is attested in two ritual texts in archives at Ebla of the 24th century BCE. They were connected with ritual purifications on the occasion of the king's wedding. In them, a she-goat with a silver bracelet hung from her neck was driven forth into the wasteland of 'Alini'; "we" in the report of the ritual involves the whole community. Such 'elimination rites', in which an animal is the vehicle of evils that are chased from the community are widely attested in the Ancient Near East.
Since this goat, carrying the sins of the people placed on it, is sent away to perish , the word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes, or sufferings of others.
The Christian anthropologist René Girard has provided a reconstruction of the scapegoat theory. In Girard's view, it is humankind, not God, who has the problem with violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire). This causes a triangulation of desire and results in conflict between the desiring parties. This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. Girard contends that this is what happened in the case of Jesus. The difference in this case, Girard believes, is that he was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent; humanity is thus made aware of its violent tendencies and the cycle is broken. Satan, who is seen to be manifested in the contagion, is cast out. Thus Girard's work is significant as a re-construction of the Christus Victor atonement theory.
Scapegoating is often more devastating when applied to a minority group as they are inherently less able to defend themselves. A tactic often employed is to characterize an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small number of individuals belonging to that group, also known as guilt by association.
"Scapegoated" groups throughout history have included almost every imaginable group of people: adherents of different religions, people of different races or nations, people with different political beliefs, or people differing in behaviour from the majority. However, scapegoating may also be applied to organizations, such as governments, corporations, or various political groups. In industrialised societies, scapegoating of traditional minority groups is increasingly frowned upon.
Mobbing is a form of sociological scapegoating which occurs in the workplace. A summary of research on workplace mobbing by Kenneth Westhues, Prof. of Sociology University of Waterloo, published in OHS Canada, Canada's Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 8, December 2002, pp. 30-36.
"Scapegoating is an effective if temporary means of achieving group solidarity, when it cannot be achieved in a more constructive way. It is a turning inward, a diversion of energy away from serving nebulous external purposes toward the deliciously clear, specific goal of ruining a disliked co-worker's life. ...
Mobbing can be understood as the stressor to beat all stressors. It is an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability, deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications comes to be seen as legitimate."
Marc-Andre Fleury, a Canadian ice hockey goalie is blamed for losing the 2004 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships gold medal game to the United States. As he came out of his net to clear the puck out of the defensive zone it bounced off Patrick O'Sullivan's leg and into the empty net.
Herschelle Gibbs is held as the scapegoat for Australia's triumph and hence South Africa's exit from the Cricket World Cup of 1999 for dropping Australian captain Steve Waugh, who went on to score a century to lead his side to victory and survival in the tournament. When the two sides met again in the semi-final South Africa were eliminated. Gibbs' was particularly criticised for the nature of his drop. Having seemingly caught the ball he instantly attempted to toss it into the air in celebration, but the ball spilled loose in the process, Gibbs thereby failing to secure complete control. Immediately after the incident Waugh reputedly told Gibbs, "You've just dropped the World Cup". Both parties have subsequently denied this.
The Karpman Drama Triangle does a fine job of illustrating the Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim roles attendant in the scapegoating dynamic in any relationship of three or more people. Rodger Garrett asserts that early life habituation to scapegoating can result in a paranoid interpersonal orientation with a likelihood of passive-aggressive personality traits in adolescence leading to unfortunate parataxical integrations (see Harry Stack Sullivan) between parents and teenagers.
If the scapegoating pattern continues into early adulthood, development towards healthy personal identity is likely to be compromised, with strong likelihood of histrionic, compensatory narcissistic, and/or obsessive-compulsive, as well as passive-aggressive traits. Fully-criterial personality disorders are likely, leading to severe, ego-protecting "affect management behaviors" including alcoholism, drug addiction and other substance and behavioral process disorders.