Guilt, blame, and oppression:
A feminist philosophy of scapegoating
PhD Thesis, 2022
My project in this thesis is motivated by a need to understand how blame-shifting is at work, perpetuating and insulating oppression by allowing those who participate in unjust systems, often while holding explicit beliefs of their unacceptability, to find ways of absolving both themselves and the system of responsibility.
I argue that to understand the endurance of oppression, we require an understanding of why people remain complicit in systems of oppression. To this end, we require an explanation for how we are structurally encouraged to avoid responsibility and absolve ourselves and for the systems that shift blame onto certain groups. My first chapter considers several prominent theories of oppression and argues that they each miss something about the dynamics of blame-shifting and guilt/responsibility avoidance, specifically how these dynamics justify and mask oppression. I suggest that a promising and intuitive answer to this gap is the concept of scapegoating. This leads into the next chapter where I will outline the various incarnations of the concept to determine whether it can help.
In chapter two I provide a brief genealogy of the scapegoat mechanism. It will explain different historical conceptions of scapegoating to determine if it offers the resources necessary to fill the explanatory gap identified in chapter one. After surveying the literature, I argue that there are five core elements that emerge as defining of scapegoating. This constellation of elements informs how my theory of scapegoating will fit within the existing literature on the concept. They are: (i) blame-shifting; (ii) guilt absolution; (iii) credible targets; (iv) exile; and (v) epistemic obscurity.
I begin to develop a philosophical theory of scapegoating that can respond to the gaps left by both theories of oppression and theories of scapegoating. I take stock of the core elements extracted from other conceptions of scapegoating and identify their explanatory weaknesses for understanding how scapegoating functions to facilitate the persistence of oppression. Then, I argue that an “ameliorative” analysis of scapegoating is needed to account for how blame-shifting is justified and responsibility is masked in service of oppression. I distinguish my ameliorative theory from purely interpersonal and purely psychologistic accounts of scapegoating, instead characterizing the concept of scapegoating according to its social function in societies built on oppression. Finally, I return to the five core elements of scapegoating and draw out more precisely how my social function account includes these elements but employs them structurally rather than interpersonally or psychologistically.
I develop a concept of scapegoating made up of three sub-mechanisms: essentialization, collective interest, and social exclusion. First I argue that scapegoating involves a kind of essentialization that (i) falsely attributes a dangerous and threatening nature to some group, and (ii) justifies blaming that group by appealing to that nature. I argue that the identity of the group that scapegoats is also formed by the process. Following Jean-Paul Sartre, I argue that in situations of oppression, identities are formed oppositionally – one of the mechanisms through which this happens is scapegoating wherein one group is essentialized as threatening and another is constructed as worthy of protection. Second, I argue that scapegoating involves collective interest, by which I mean a commitment to the social group and status quo being protected, whether that defense requires active persecution of a perceived threat or affective indifference when a scapegoated group is suffering. This bonds the dominant group, justifies and obscures the means for their protection and the guilt or responsibility that could accompany it. Lastly, I argue that scapegoating involves varying degrees of social exclusion that further bond those who remain safely centered in the community and prevent the scapegoated from challenging their status. On my account, social exclusion also functions as a system-justification wherein scapegoaters shift blame onto the oppressed in order to defend the status quo. While some existing accounts of scapegoating claim it achieves a sense of social peace, on my ameliorative theory this social peace represents a status quo that requires critical review.
My final chapter elaborates the epistemic dimensions of my theory of scapegoating. I argue that scapegoating is a dynamic element of our social imagination that helps give shape to our world through epistemic and affective patterns (i.e., ignorance) that make up our sense of 16 ourselves and others. In particular, understanding ignorance as an active and socially produced phenomenon, I argue that ignorance is built into the mechanism of scapegoating, and scapegoating is constitutive of our social imaginaries and collective forms of ignorance. This helps explain how scapegoating is maintained and maintains systems of oppression. I end by arguing that despite its entrenchment in our imaginaries and institutions, scapegoating is contingent on our continued participation and open to resistance.