By Brianna Novak
If something goes wrong, people often look for a scapegoat to blame. This happens at work, with family, amongst friends and even in politics. But what exactly is a scapegoat and why do people want to blame others for their problems? A story from Berlin.
The Torah says: “and Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering.” So, a scapegoat carries the sins, or even worse, the guilt of the innocent. And people tend to project their anger or frustration on others. This is what we call the blame game.
According to sociologist Peter Streckeisen from the University of Basel scapegoating is a mechanism of false projection: “The personal and social hardships of many people in society are projected onto a particular person or group. And then everybody else is blamed”.
Sometimes people just need to justify themselves by blaming others. Knowing you are not responsible for your own grief or failures, diminishes your own feelings of guilt. Irina Novak, owner of a beauty parlour in Berlin’s district Wilmersdorf, tells how her colleague Svetlana became the scapegoat of a client.
Mrs. Schmidt is a small, always elegantly dressed 63-year-old woman, who has visited Irina’s beauty parlour for seven years. She always leaves the salon satisfied, with freshly painted fingernails and clean skin. Each time she enters the salon, a smile bears witness to her pleasant anticipation. Mrs. Schmidt has been suffering from back pain for years, which is why Irina and Svetlana always treat her very carefully.
At the end of each visit, she always makes an appointment for next time. But, after her last visit, something went wrong. “I thought she forgot to make an appointment. I called her to ask when she would like to come next time”, Irina tells.
But she found out Mrs. Schmidt had left the salon intending never to return again. She was angry. “She claimed Svetlana was responsible for letting her sit in an awkward position in the beauty parlour, which caused her to suffer back pain”, Irina explains. She is still very shocked about the complaint of Mrs. Schmidt. For her and Svetlana, every customer is a queen.
“I always ask my customers if everything is alright and Mrs. Schmidt always falls asleep during treatment,” Svetlana says. “I wake her up when we are done. And she has never been dissatisfied with my work”.
But now the two German women have experienced first-hand what it is like to be accused of something without any evidence. “She has turned me into a scapegoat for doing nothing. Suddenly, I was the blame for her pain. She talked about it since the first day she came to the salon. And honestly, pain is not so unusual at her age”, she continues. Mrs. Schmidt told her how she used to swim and exercise on her vacation. “But shortly afterwards, her condition was deteriorating again. And our couch was the mistake”, Irina says, very disappointed.
Is it just human nature to look for a scapegoat? “Many sociological theories of action assume that a large part of action, thinking and feeling is half-conscious or unconscious”, Streckeisen explains. So, in some situations people simply act inconsiderate and sometimes subconsciously blame others. Streckeisen says scapegoating can become dangerous when a single person stigmatizes a whole group. “For example, the Jews during the National Socialism, or today the Muslim population in some countries”.
But if the situation is minor, like with Mrs. Schmidt, one shouldn’t worry too much. “One day, we suddenly became a scapegoat. You have to stay calm and just accept it. And don’t get too upset about it: customers come and go.”