The more you can attribute blame for some bad thing to others, the less blame you need to shoulder yourself, and the less guilt you then need to suffer. And as guilt lessens, so does the costliness of the personal sacrifice adequate to its expiation.
Science now bolsters René Girard’s emphasis on scapegoating as basic to culture; recent research in social psychology has found that:
- Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target. For instance, respondents who read that Americans are the biggest consumer drivers of climate change “reported significantly higher levels of outrage at the environmental destruction” caused by “multinational oil corporations” than did the respondents who read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.
- The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” For instance, participants in study one read about sweatshop labor exploitation, rated their own identification with common consumer practices that allegedly contribute, then rated their level of anger at “international corporations” who perpetuate the exploitative system and desire to punish these entities. The results showed that increased guilt “predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer due to increased moral outrage at the target.”
- Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “in-group immorality.” Study participants who read that Americans were the biggest drivers of man-made climate change showed significantly higher guilt scores than those who read the blame-China article when they weren’t given an opportunity to express anger at or assign blame to a third-party. However, having this opportunity to rage against hypothetical corporations led respondents who read the blame-America story to express significantly lower levels of guilt than the China group. Respondents who read that Chinese consumers were to blame had similar guilt levels regardless of whether they had the opportunity to express moral outrage.
- “The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.
- Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” Study five used the labor exploitation article, asked all participants questions to assess their level of “collective guilt” (i.e., “feelings of guilt for the harm caused by one’s own group”) about the situation, then gave them an article about horrific conditions at Apple product factories. After that, a control group was given a neutral exercise, while others were asked to briefly describe what made them a good and decent person; both exercises were followed by an assessment of empathy and moral outrage. The researchers found that for those with high collective-guilt levels, having the chance to assert their moral goodness first led to less moral outrage at corporations. But when the high-collective-guilt folks were given the neutral exercise and couldn’t assert they were good people, they wound up with more moral outrage at third parties. Meanwhile, for those low in collective guilt, affirming their own moral goodness first led to marginally more moral outrage at corporations.
These findings may of course fail to replicate – although that seems less likely than would be the case did they not so neatly contravene, and so sap, the Modern Cult of Social Justice, making them as heretical extremely hazardous to bruit about.
Girard argued that scaping goats is the basis of culture (NB: culture, not society per se, which must be presupposed by any social function whatever; there’s no way to banish someone from a clan that does not already exist). Enlightenment politics as actually practiced is entirely a process of scaping goats, so as to maintain an in-group.
As Girard so clearly saw, the only workable alternative to endlessly reiterated scaping of goats is the personal confession, repentance and reformation so central to Christian praxis. And in fact, confession, repentance, and reformation are the only effective way to solve one’s own concrete problems – which are the only sort that can finally matter. Just as you can’t rescue yourself by pulling a location, so you can’t turn your life around by blaming others for your predicaments. To ascribe the defects of one’s life to others, or to environmental factors, is in part effectually to damp and mediate their problematic aspects, so as to reduce both their discomfort and their urgency, so to deter and defer the difficult work of actually solving them. .
I set forth now to Church, to confess my sins, repent of them and repudiate them, commit again to reformation of my life and loyalty to my King, take up the sackcloth and ashes of mourning that befit the season of Lent, and thus cleansed and purified, to join myself once more to the body of my Lord.
A Holy Lent to you all.