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Scapegoating is the practice of blaming major problems on a single individual or group while ignoring the responsibilities of others. The individual or group being blamed is known as the scapegoat, while the person or group placing the blame is the one doing the scapegoating. The term has negative connotations, and can be considered an insult depending on its use.
An argument that scapegoats someone else is easy to identify. The person scapegoating mentions an individual or group and assigns them responsibility for the problem, then usually states that their removal will help to fix it. A typical scapegoating might sound like this: “[The scapegoat] was the person in charge when these problems started. [The scapegoat] caused the problem with their actions. Once [the scapegoat] is out of the way, we can start fixing things.”
Correctly assigning blame can sometimes appear to be scapegoating, but is very different. The arguments involved in scapegoating can be irrational and often appeal to emotion; correctly assigning blame uses facts and logic. Scapegoating assigns all of the responsibility for a problem onto one group or individual; correctly assigning blame usually shows that there are many contributors to a problem, and exactly what each one has done.
Scapegoating can be used both defensively and offensively. A person can scapegoat defensively when they are partially responsible for a problem, but do not want their contribution known. By blaming someone else completely for a problem, the scapegoater’s responsibility can be hidden or can seem diminished to others. A person can scapegoat offensively when they have nothing to do with the problem, but gain an advantage over an opponent or rival if that person takes the blame. A scapegoat for a significant calamity can lose both power and status, even though they may be innocent or only partially to blame.
The term scapegoating originates from early religions, most notably Judaism. In an ancient Judaic ceremony, the sins of the people were placed onto a goat during the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur. The goat was then forced out of the village and away from the people or killed.