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What is a Scapegoat?

Scapegoats may sometimes be used in politics to shift blame onto one person.
An example of scapegoating is when a baseball team blames the batter for a broken window.
Historically, scapegoating involved placing the sins of a group of people onto a goat, which was forced out of the village.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 August 2014
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One ancient ritual described in the Old Testament concerned the selection and eventual banishment of a goat from the rest of the flock. This goat would often be stained with a red pigment, representing the collective sins and wrongdoings of the entire community. According to tradition, this goat was sent into the wilderness to encounter Azazel, a fallen angel similar to Satan or Lucifer. A medieval mistranslation created the modern legend of an escaped goat, or scapegoat.

In modern terms, a scapegoat is often a member of an organization who is held responsible for the failings or shortcomings of the entire group. The chief financial officer of a bankrupt company may be held responsible for its financial failings, for example. A disgraced executive may be blamed for a company's exposed wrongdoing, or a low-level politician may be treated as a representative of widespread governmental corruption.

This is not to suggest that a scapegoat is completely innocent of the allegations or has been sacrificed unfairly. A person found guilty of public corruption while in office may become a symbol for others who have committed similar crimes but have not been indicted or punished. When a scandal involving illegal steroid use broke out in the sports world, some people believed a handful of players who admitted their drug use had become scapegoats for their entire organizations. This person can also be viewed as a sacrificial lamb who accepts punishment in order to protect others.

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There are also situations in which a scapegoat is selected for political or strategic reasons. Pinning the blame for a company's failings on a low-level executive, for example, may take the legal focus off higher ranking officials. The low-level executive's future may not be so bright, but at least the organization as a whole would survive public scrutiny by punishing a designated offender. Often, this person's role is to put a public face on wrongdoing or corruption and accept the consequences of other people's actions.

Scapegoating can also be considered an act of self-preservation. Rather than accept the collective blame for a broken window, for example, a group of amateur baseball players could single out the batter to blame. Although the actions of every player contributed to the damage, placing all of the responsibility on the last player to touch the ball would absolve the rest of the group of personal liability. It is often much easier for a group to designate one person to take the blame rather than accept individual responsibility for certain transgressions.

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NathanG
Post 6

@SkyWhisperer - I don’t know. I am not familiar with Biblical theology on the matter so either interpretation works for me. The principle is the same in both cases so I don’t think it matters a whole lot. The fact is most of us understand the popular application of the concept more than we do scapegoat etymology.

In our day we might use the term “fall guy” for “scapegoat,” and there are plenty of fall guys in the corporate world.

I realize everyone’s trying to cover their you-know-what, but in my experience, the best practice is to be honest and open if you’ve made a mistake, rather than trying to point to someone else.

You have to realize that people in management are not dumb. In blaming someone else, you are deflecting criticism of your own actions in a most transparent way and managers can usually see right through this.

SkyWhisperer
Post 5

I understood the scapegoat teaching from my Old Testament classes, but had never heard that “Azazel” was a fallen angel similar to Satan. That may be one interpretation but we had been taught that “Azazel” was a mistranslation of the term “scapegoat.” The two were one and the same.

The Day of Atonement scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness carrying away the sins of the people, but not to encounter another angel. The wilderness was supposed to be the abyss where Satan is supposed to be put at the end of the world.

I do allow however that there are probably other interpretations since the term “Azazel” is somewhat cryptic.

lighth0se33
Post 4

I have two brothers and three sisters, and I have served as the family scapegoat for a long time. Granted, I did cause a lot of mischief as a young kid, but I ended up taking the blame for things even when I was totally innocent.

I was super hyper and loved to play pranks. Usually, if something happened to someone in the house, I was responsible. However, my brother used this to his advantage once he turned twelve.

He developed the same mischievous streak that I had, and he began doing things like propping buckets of water on top of doors and setting trip lines across entryways. I got punished several times for what he did, until my mom finally caught him in the act.

cloudel
Post 3

@seag47 - I used to be a scapegoat in my office, also. I was a secretary, and I often had to take the blame for misunderstandings between my boss and customers, even if I wasn’t in the wrong.

I know that he knew I wasn’t always at fault, and this bothered me. However, I really needed the job, so I hung on. I knew that my low ranking put me in the position to take hits for the team.

One day, though, it got to be too much for me. The boss blamed me right in front of a customer for the fact that he had missed an important meeting with them. I had reminded him several times, even that morning, that he had an appointment with them at 10:00 a.m. that day, and he overslept and didn’t make it in until 11:00.

The customer had been waiting for an hour in the lobby, and the boss made a scene with me and acted like I had never told him about the appointment. I quietly took his lashing, but once the customer left, I promptly went into his office and quit. No job is worth that blow to my dignity.

Oceana
Post 2

I think it is just wrong for the public to blame one single politician for all the corruption in the field. They don’t look at the big picture. If they did, they would see that the way things operate is not determined or changed by one individual.

Political techniques have been in place for years, and though we may not like them, we shouldn’t single out certain politicians as scapegoats. I am never surprised by political scandal, and I refuse to place the corruption of all upon one person’s head.

seag47
Post 1

I am a graphic designer, and I am frequently serve as a scapegoat for our sales representatives, along with the other designer in my office. The sales reps are the only voices and faces that the customers see, but if something goes wrong with their advertisement, then the designers always take the blame.

I think this is so they can preserve their relationship with their clients. They figure that since they will never know us anyway, what harm could it do to place all the blame on us?

We are the last people to handle an ad before it prints. So, the sales rep can easily say, “The designer messed up,” even if our mistake is due to the misinformation they handed us.

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