The blame game

Pointing a finger at vulnerable groups is a feature of this tough economic age, but scapegoating goes back to biblical times, says Laura Marcus

Hero image

The Bart Simpson defence “I didn’t do it” is funny because it’s something few fail to recognise. When asked as children if we did something we know we shouldn’t, it’s almost a reflex to say, no, we didn’t. But if denial is the first line of defence, the second is invariably “they made me do it!” with a finger pointed firmly at someone else.

If you have a car accident, it’s someone else’s fault. It can’t possibly be yours. Owning up to mistakes is tough and most of us will do almost anything to avoid it. How much more comforting to find an easy target upon which to lay all the blame. It’s their fault – that lot over there.

This scapegoating of others to blame for our own mistakes, misfortunes and misbehaving goes back to biblical times when a goat was literally taken out and slaughtered to atone for people’s sins. It absolved them of responsibility and made them feel better.

“We all want to feel good about ourselves – make our own positions more positive than someone else’s,” says Professor Pam Maras of the department of psychology and counselling at the University of Greenwich. This is why we enjoy comparisons with others.

Belonging to a group is a vital part of human identity, adds Dr Nic Hammarling, psychologist at consultancy firm Pearn Kandola. “One of the biggest drivers of human nature is the groups we’re part of. It’s our social identity and it’s very important to us. So we pick the groups we want to join very carefully. We want to be with others who make us feel good – this can be where we work or socialise.” And one way we define membership of one group is by clearly identifying one we’re not part of – bankers, say. Or the unemployed if we’re employed.

One way scapegoating works is to get rid of a rotten apple in a group so the rest can feel good about themselves – for example, Barclays’ Bob Diamond. “He was sacrificed to save the rest. That may well have meant that the others responsible got off scot free but it met the need to blame, which makes us feel better about ourselves,” says Hammarling.

Sharon Shoesmith, former head of children’s services at Haringey where Peter Connelly – Baby P – died, is another example of one person being blamed, even though Connelly was seen on 60 separate occasions by various authorities. She won her case for unfair dismissal. And it’s not just the political right with its finger pointing at, say, the unemployed or the last Labour government. Left-wingers too take comfort from blaming Thatcher for everything that’s wrong with the country.

Perhaps the biggest and most insidious divide is between the working and non-working poor

A classic feature of scapegoating is dividing groups into good and bad. For example, we’re encouraged by government to believe the private sector is better than the public. This has had the effect of stigmatising public sector workers with headlines such as “gold-plated pensions” and suggestions of featherbedding. But most public sector workers earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. Millions are on low wages, working as cleaners and carers.

In an atmosphere of fear about cuts in the public sector, the so-called back office often comes in for a lot of blame while frontline workers are praised and garlanded. The police and fire service are a prime example. We’re almost encouraged to hate back office staff as their productivity is hard to measure and it’s assumed they’re just pen-pushing bureaucrats who get in the way of the real work. But without a back office, no one would get paid and no one would have any supplies. Yet we’re entreated to regard bobbies on the beat, paramedics and firefighters as heroes while castigating the administrative staff they rely upon. Hard to be a hero with a pen in your hand rather than a hose.

“The least powerful are scapegoated, the powerful aren’t,” says Maras. “This divide and rule even extends to countries so you see Greece getting the blame for the euro. That’s because it’s easy to scapegoat the Greeks. Not so many negative comments about France, Spain and Italy though.”

Perhaps the biggest and most insidious divide is between the working and non-working poor. In all the recent fuss about how much housing benefit costs the exchequer, it’s rarely mentioned that most recipients of housing benefit are in work. They claim because rents are high and wages falling. Yet the finger is pointed because, as Maras says, they’re an easy group to castigate. Likewise the working poor are encouraged to hate anyone on the dole. You’re going out to work every day while your neighbour is slumped in front of the TV, as George Osborne put it. Similar calls by Nick Clegg to “alarm clock Britain” and the oft-used term “hard working families” imply, overtly or covertly, that those who aren’t in work – or don’t work very hard – are “other”, different, to be shamed and shunned.

“The problem with blaming benefit cheats for the high cost of welfare is that some people do take advantage of it, even though most don’t,” says Professor Hillel Steiner, political philosophy lecturer at Manchester University. “Having a go at benefit cheats is definitely scapegoating, the nexus of which is to try and get working people to blame those on benefits for austerity cuts. If they’re doing that, they might be too busy to become disenchanted with the government.”

There’s also a divide between people with disabilities and the able bodied. Cuts to Disability Living Allowance and more draconian testing for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is replacing Incapacity Benefit, are said by disability rights workers to be causing an increase in physical attacks on the disabled. When you’re encouraged to blame, point a finger and even hate a group on benefits, it’s not such a big step for some people to take this further and attack them.

“I don’t think scapegoating will ever go away, we get too much out of it”

Forcing people on Jobseekers’ Allowance to work for nothing in return for so-called work experience is another big divider. Many working people see no harm in this. After all, “why should anyone get something for nothing?” is the mantra regularly trotted out by David Cameron. But what a lot of people in work don’t realise is that free labour harms paid labour. When 23-year-old Cait Reilly brought her case against the government after her local JobCentre Plus made her give up voluntary work at a museum – relevant to her degree and career choice – and work instead for nothing at Poundland, she told the court she’d been promised an interview for a job at the end. None came. Instead she was replaced with another work experience person. For a business, this makes perfect sense. Why hire someone when you can get a steady stream of free workers?

Channel 4 News recently carried an item about how work experience at Asda has led the supermarket to cut back on paid staff’s hours. With the hours necessary to claim Working Tax Credit increased from 16 a week to 24, this is causing genuine financial hardship.

“I don’t think scapegoating will ever go away,” warns Hammarling. “We get too much out of it. Politicians can take a lead on this but we have very poor leaders and they like their scapegoats.” And why wouldn’t they? Scapegoats detract from their own failures. There’s a psychological term for this: corfing, which means distancing yourself from failure or people not well thought of. By doing so, we boost our own feelings. The opposite, birging, means basking in reflected glory. Both are endemic to human experience.

We can fight feelings with facts, pointing out that even on the Department of Work and Pensions own statistics, Incapacity Benefit fraud is a mere 0.3 per cent. But facts aren’t much good when faced with prejudice. As Ben Goldacre has pointed out, when you show prejudiced people the facts, they don’t change their minds. They dig in still further and refute the facts.

So how can we counter scapegoating? Make people aware of it. Point out that divide and rule suits governments and rulers and why should we do their job for them? Challenge it – gently! – whenever you get the chance. Why gently? Because no one likes being put on the spot or being made to feel a fool. Raising awareness can help. How can the government say we’re all in it together while forever encouraging divide and rule?

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to The blame game

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.