Scapegoating the Leaders

The Scapegoat (1856) by William Holman Hunt
The Scapegoat (1856) by William Holman Hunt

Today I re-read an essay titled “HOW TO SCAPEGOAT THE LEADER: A Refresher Course (for those who do not need it)” by Thomas A. Michael. It draws directly on Girardian thought to explain what scapegoating is and how it works in many organisations and groups.

Briefly, “the scapegoating mechanism is the means by which social stability is maintained” in a group, community, family, etc.

I find the essay particularly useful because Michael a.) summarises Girardian ideas relevant to scapegoating; b.) gives a concrete example of scapegoating a leader in an academic setting, and c.) lists and explains four stereotypes (or aspects) of scapegoating. I recommend the essay for organizational leaders especially, but also for anyone who seeks to better understand the mechanism of scapegoating, a practice that is very common and very well hidden (or justified) in most groups.

The four stereotypes Michael sets out — and he notes that “not all of the four stereotypes are needed in order for the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism to come into play” — are:

  1. The community comes under threat or there is a sense of a crisis; there is a collapse of order, hierarchy and differentiation

  2. There is a search for someone who could be seen as responsible for the crisis, threat, disorder

  3. The victims chosen for scapegoating are perceived as being marginal, outsiders, abnormal, unusual — this includes those at the top of the hierarchy, such as leaders (“The authority figure is a marginal insider who is always in danger of being scapegoated by the mob whenever there is unrest.”)

  4. The community unites against the evildoer and stops fighting one another; the scapegoat is expelled and peace returns to the group (temporarily)

One of Michael’s most interesting comments, IMO, is this, concerning his example of academic scapegoating:

He was accused of incompetence, a global accusation that is impossible to refute, and is a description often used in organizations to identify someone as Other. It is the harshest judgment a group of intellectuals can make.

“This identified him as a scapegoat worthy of punishment, and he identified with these projections by committing the misdemeanor that justified his removal. Girard points out that the scapegoat often thinks he is guilty:

“‘Oedipus is a successful scapegoat because he concurs in the judgment on himself. This is what the social order seeks to inculcate, for the unanimity of the generative mechanism will ideally include even the victim’s own complicity in the judgment made’ (Williams, p. 165).”


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