Scapegoating and Dehumanization
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Scapegoating and Dehumanization

Essay: Scapegoating and Dehumanization

I am taking a break from my series exploring Christianity and animal rights to reflect on the recent assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Like many Americans, I find myself relieved by his killing, since he has been dedicated to killing people. However, I have been troubled by the evident glee expressed by many people.
As discussed previously, scapegoating involves heaping excess guilt onto other individual(s), often in an effort to deflect guilt from those participating in scapegoating onto the victim(s). Victims of scapegoating often aren’t completely innocent, but they aren’t as guilty as scapegoaters believe them to be. We all sin, and we all have thoughts about which we are ashamed, which make us all susceptible to the temptation to participate in scapegoating. How can we discern necessary and just violence from violence that has its roots in scapegoating?
One way is to seek the counsel of others, since they can be more objective. However, since the anger and hatred that characterizes scapegoating is mimetic, family and friends are often caught up in the same sentiments. Introspection through meditation or prayer can help guide us to truth. If we feel good about the consequences of our violence, there is an excellent chance that scapegoating has played a role in our sentiments. If we have honestly sought nonviolent solutions and, finding no alternative, genuinely regret the harm to one of God’s living creations, then there is good reason to believe that we have avoided scapegoating’s allure.
Another “red flag” for scapegoating is when the victims of violence are dehumanized. Their personhood – their hopes, fears, desires, and personalities – are denied. People define them as “dangerous” or “evil” and deny their feelings. Further, dehumanization helps avoid thinking about what might have motivated people to do harmful things. For example, Bin Laden was undoubtedly responsible for terrible acts of violence, but seeing him as “evil” helps avoid thinking about how American policies and actions might have contributed to his radicalization and the radicalization that prompted “suicide” terrorists to kill Americans.
Often, dehumanization involves identifying the victims with nonhuman animals. This reflects how many people deny the fact, evident on even casual observation, that every creature is a person in his or her own ways. Each animal has a distinct personality and each has genuine individual desires. Though the specific dehumanizing terms vary, universally those who perpetrate acts of violence deny personhood to their victims.
I think we can strongly suspect that an element of scapegoating has contributed to animal exploitation and abuse when people seem to derive pleasure from their participation in harming animals. I rarely see a hint of regret among those who financially support factory farming, for example, even though modern animal agriculture inherently involves extreme violence and cruelty. Our accounts of Jesus do not, I think, show evidence of hatred or of deriving pleasure from the suffering of others. They occasionally show anger, and he does denounce hypocrites whose self-serving ideologies and practices harm vulnerable individuals. Would Jesus approve of killing Bin Laden? Perhaps. Would he celebrate it? I doubt it.

Go on to: Christianity and Animal Rights, part 9
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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