- Scapegoating: false and excessive blame and punishment for perceived norm violations
Scapegoating is the practice of blaming and punishing innocent victims for purposes of expediency and/or political gain. Blame is a contested term, but I take it to denote negative and avoidant interpersonal practices, such as resenting, sanctioning, distrusting, excluding, and marginalizing people. Punishment also includes negative and exclusionary (albeit institutionalized) practices, such as incarcerating, disciplining, and isolating people. Depending on your theoretical framework, punishment may or may not fall under the rubric of blame; punishment may be an institutionalized version of blame, though with additional constraints determined by relevant institutional considerations, or it may be an entirely separate practice. I agree with Wallace (1996) that blame includes a range of criticizing and sanctioning responses, including, “at the limit,” punishment (1996: 54). Some reasons for thinking that punishment is part of the blaming system is that it is part of a system of relations in which we assign responsibility, and it is amenable to the same cognitive distortions, including implicit biases. Scapegoating as a type of epistemically irresponsible blame, then, can occur in carceral and extra-carceral systems.
America is one of the most socioeconomically stratified and demographically unequal countries in the developed world. As a result, historically disenfranchised groups, including African American, Hispanic, and LatinX people, women, and people with mental illness, are systemically scapegoated. That is, members of these groups are blamed and punished for norm violations they did not commit, or excessively blamed and punished for relatively insignificant norm violations, on the basis of oppressive cultural stereotypes and social scripts. Scapegoating reinforces existing asymmetries of power and protects the positive self-conception and socioeconomic status of privileged groups.
In this post, I will explain how America’s extreme socioeconomic inequality harms Black and LatinX Americans, women, and people with mental illness*, making them vulnerable to scapegoating (section 2). In section 3, I will explain more specifically how scapegoating practices harm and vilify these groups across a range of social institutions. In section 4, I will define scapegoating as not just a type of misdirected blame, but a type of epistemic injustice with the characteristic feature of vilifying marginalized groups by blaming them for society’s real or imagined problems, and I will outline some of the harms perpetrated by this type of injustice. In sections 5 and 6, I will explain who is responsible for scapegoating, on two different theories of responsibility (the indirect-control view and functionalism). I hold that cognitively functional Americans are generally responsible for scapegoating on both views, though there may be some variation in degrees of blameworthiness depending on the circumstance; and I say that, on both views, scapegoaters can be blamed for both the harms and the contents of overt scapegoating actions.
2. Socioeconomic Inequality
Scapegoating is a common practice in modern society, in part because modern society is characterized by conditions of severe socioeconomic inequality and demographic stratification. The United States has the fifth highest level of income inequality (measured by household disposable income per year) of all OECD countries, behind only Turkey, Chile, Costa Rica, and South Africa (OECD 2017). The top 1% of Americans control 38.6% of the nation’s wealth – almost twice as much as the bottom 90% combined (Egan 2017). Poverty does not affect every social group equally; it disproportionally affects historically disenfranchised groups. The real median income of non-Hispanic white households is $65,041, compared to only $47,675 for Hispanic-origin households and $39,490 for Black households (Semega et al. 2017). Income inequality, moreover, pales in comparison to wealth inequality: ‘white households in the middle-income quintile (those earning $37,201-$61,328 annually) own nearly eight times as much wealth ($86,100) as middle-income Black earners ($11,000) and ten times as much wealth as middle-income Latino earners ($8,600)” (Asante-Muhammad et al. 2017). That is, within the same income bracket, Black and LatinX earners own much less wealth than white earners.
Income also varies by gender: Women as a group earn just 80% as much as men, but Hispanic/Latina women and African American women, respectively, earn only 54% and 63% on the dollar, compared to white women’s 79% and Asian women’s 87% earnings (AAUW 2017).
These are some of the major populations studied by economists, but it leaves out many disadvantaged groups, including people with mental illness. Higher economic inequality is linked with higher national rates of mental illness (Pickett et al. 2006), and mental illness is highest amongst low-income families (McSilver Institute 2014). Research suggests that poverty is not just the result of disability due to mental illness, but a significant cause of mental illness (ibid). The United States has the third-highest disease burden due to mental illness of all WHO member states (after only China and India) (McPhillips 2014, WHO 2017), and ranks 37th for access to healthcare services – higher than Slovenia, but below Costa Rica (TPF 2018). 56% of Americans currently lack access to mental health treatment, with worse access in states that chose not to expand Medicaid (MHA 2017).
This isn’t an exhaustive list of socioeconomically disadvantaged demographic groups, of course, but it is a suggestive compilation of readily-available economic data. (I don’t have time to address further intersections of oppression here). The specified disadvantaged groups – Black, LatinX, Hispanic Americans, women, and those with mental illness – are victims of systemic scapegoating. That is, they are systemically blamed for illusory and trivial norm-violations because they are easy targets (due to low socioeconomic status, intergenerational trauma, etc.), and because blaming these groups reinforces the existing colonialist, patriarchal, ableist social order. Blaming members of disadvantaged groups for norm violations that they didn’t commit maintains the status quo, reinforces oppressive social narratives, and protects the socioeconomic interests of the historically privileged.
3. The cultural scapegoating of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups
Here are some examples of systemic scapegoating.
The United States, which contains 21% of the world’s prison population – more than China (APA 2014) – incarcerates African Americans at almost five times the rate of white Americans, incarcerates twice as many Black women as white women, disproportionally arrests Black children, and has a majority Black and Hispanic prison population (56%), even though these groups make up only 32% of the U.S. population (NAACP 2018). Implicit racial bias, structural disadvantages, and racial profiling lead to high levels of incarceration amongst African Americans (TSP 2016). In terms of postsecondary education, African Americans have a 47.1% graduation rate and Hispanic/LatinX Americans have a 56.5% graduation rate at public 4-year colleges, compared to a 64.4% graduation rate for White students (Imagine 2008). This is in part because African American and Hispanic/LatinX students receive disproportionate discipline referrals (controlling for socioeconomic status), resulting in more suspensions and expulsions (ibid., Wallace et al. 2005). This is due in part to implicit racial bias and stereotype threat. Of students classified as aggressive, African Americans are more likely to be disciplined than any other student group, especially by white teachers (Horner, Fireman, & Wang, 2010; KITSRE 2018). (Same-race teachers judge Black students’ classroom behaviour more favourably than do white teachers). Students with a ‘black walking style’ are perceived by teachers as lower in academic achievement, highly aggressive, and likely to be in need of special education services (Neal et al. 2003). Teachers have lower expectations of Black students than other student groups, resulting in expectancy effects and stereotype threat that harm their academic performance (McKown & Weinstein 2002). Black girls are seen as more adult-like and less innocent than their peers, resulting in harsher and more frequent punishments by educators and school resource officers (Epstein et al. 2016). These effects converge in scholastic system of relations in which “less praise” and “more disciplinary action” is taken against Black students (KITSRE 2018).
Women don’t suffer incarceration rates equal to Black and Hispanic/Latino men, but they suffer higher rates of sexual violence: 90% of adult and 87% juvenile rape victims are female (RAINN 2018) – and women are often blamed for being raped, especially by people high in rape-myth acceptance and implicit gender bias (Grubb & Turner 2012). This helps to explain why only 6 out of every 1000 rapists go to prison, and most rapists are never reported (RAINN 2018). In the criminal justice system, female expert witnesses tend to be seen as more credible in civil cases than criminal cases, possibly because criminal litigation is stereotypically male (Larson & Brodsky 2010; Couch & Sigler, 2002; Jones et al. 2014). This implies that credibility in court depends on salient gender stereotypes. In postsecondary education, female teachers receive lower scores on Students Evaluations of Teaching than male teachers across almost all disciplines, controlling for student learning outcomes (Flaherty 2016; Flaherty 2017), which suggests that women are subject to harsher criticism and resentment from students than male teachers on average. In the workplace, women who exhibit leadership skills are seen as ‘bossy’ and ‘less effective’ than men (Kramer 2016). Women can’t just transfer into a more lucrative (historically male) profession on mass, because when the share of women in an occupation increases, the occupation is devalued and pays lower wages (Levanon et al. 2009). In short, women are blamed and punished more often than men when gender stereotypes are salient, including in criminal court, higher education, and corporate America. Women are seen as less praiseworthy, and more blameworthy, in their capacity as court witnesses, university professors, and workers in historically male fields. (I should note that I used statistics about ‘female’ vs. ‘male’ expert witnesses, teachers, and workers, because of the availability of the data; it is a reasonable conjecture that trans women face the same discrimination, plus transphobia, in historically male workplaces).
Next, people with mental illness tend to be incarcerated rather than being provided with mental health services, but a majority of mentally ill prisoners are not violent offenders (NAMI 2018). Nonetheless, people with mental illness are systemically scapegoated for America’s culture of mass shootings. After the 1999 Columbine shooting, psychiatrist Peter Breggin blamed mentally ill people; after the 2012 Newtown shooting, psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey blamed ‘mentally ill subgroups’; and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed prohibitions on gun ownership for people with mental illness, on the assumption that there is a correlation between mental illness and homicide (AJPH 2014). There isn’t. Research shows that “fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness” (ibid), while about 20% of American adults have a diagnosable mental illness (Insel 2015). In other words, having a mental illness predicts not committing a mass shooting. People with mental illness are more likely to be assaulted than to commit assault (AJPH 2014), but they are stereotyped as ‘dangerous,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘criminal.’
Factors that do predict gun violence include gun availability and social relations: up to 85% of shootings occur within social networks (Papachristos 2012). There is also a positive correlation between mass shootings and domestic violence: while “perpetrators of domestic violence account for only about 10 percent of all gun violence, they accounted for 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016” (NPR 2017; citing Everytown 2017). Psychiatrists are not effective barriers to mass shootings, as they are no better than laypeople at predicting whether a patient will commit a violent crime (Steadman 1978). As Jonathan Metzl clarifies, there is no psychiatric diagnosis that includes gun violence as a symptom; hence, when it comes to mass shootings, there is no “predictive value to psychiatric diagnosis” (Metzl on NPR, February 18, 2018).
Mental illness is diagnosed three to four times more often in Black and Hispanic/LatinX service users than in white service users, possibly due to clinical racial bias, differential access to healthcare, and different attitudes toward mental healthcare (Schwartz et al. 2014). This suggests that mental illness may not have robust construct validity, let alone predictive value. In any case, the majority of mass shooters are white males (54%) (Foleman et al. 2017), and most do not have a diagnosed mental illness. Salient predictors of gun violence, then, do not include having a mental illness; they having access to guns, knowing the victim, having a record of domestic violence, and being a white male. If there is a predictively valid stereotype of a mass shooter, then, it is a normal white male.
In sum, racialized minorities, women, and people with mental illness tend to be falsely and excessively blamed and punished due to the saliency of cultural stereotypes. These patterns of blame and punishment reinforce patriarchal, colonial, and ableist social scripts.
4. Scapegoating as epistemic injustice
Scapegoating reinforces oppressive social scripts rooted in America’s colonial-patriarchal history. Black and Hispanic/LatinX Americans are disproportionally blamed and punished for perceived norm violations and perceived suberogatory performance in judicial and educational contexts; women are unfairly blamed for perceived subordinate performance in stereotypically male judicial, educational, and corporate contexts; and people with mental illness are unfairly blamed and stigmatized in the wake of mass shootings.
In his influential work on responsibility, Manual Vargas argues that our capacity for moral responsibility is influenced by the availability of “narratives, scripts, or cultural frameworks,” which comprise our “moral ecology” (2013: 246). Similarly, Jose Medina argues that our capacity for responsibility depends on the availability of social scripts, narratives, and discourses, which comprise our shared “social imagination” (2012). Our sensitivity to people’s moral and epistemic traits, on these views, is conditioned by salient social scripts – for example, scripts about putative associations between race and criminality, gender and credibly, and mental health and violence. These scripts are rooted in historical asymmetries of power, and they normalize and reinforce these asymmetries. Blaming disadvantaged groups reinforces the very scripts that oppress them.
Scapegoating targets socially marginalized groups because these groups are vulnerable, socioeconomically, politically, and epistemically. Therefore, they are easy targets. Perhaps the best way of framing scapegoating as a type of harm or injustice is to see it is as a kind of epistemic injustice, which involves giving someone a deflated credibility rating on the basis of identity prejudice (Fricker 2007). When we scapegoat someone by framing the person’s group identity or visible demographic attributes through dominant social narratives as a type of failing or liability, we are harming the scapegoating victim’s epistemic standing within the community – that is, we are committing testimonial injustice (Fricker 2007: 1). Similarly, when we fail to refute false stereotypes about marginalized social groups, we are withholding pertinent epistemic resources from those groups and normalizing oppressive scripts, which is what Alyssa Cirne calls “willful hermeneutical marginalization” (2012: 46) – a second type of epistemic injustice. Both types of epistemic injustice are perpetrated by people with epistemic deficits.
The distinctive characteristic of scapegoating as a type of epistemic injustice is that scapegoating vilifies an epistemically vulnerable group by framing their identities and experiences through the dominant framework(s) of the privileged, and therefore frames their identities and experiences as essentially morally corrupt. As Gaile Pohlhais, Jr. (2014) describes epistemic injustice, its “primary harms” involve “othering” members of marginalized groups, specifically for purposes of “maintaining epistemic practices that make sense of the world as experienced from dominant subjectivities, but [does not grant the ‘othered’ individuals] the same epistemic support with regard to their lived experiences in the world” (2014: 105, emphasis mine). Scapegoating has this character of ‘othering’ epistemically vulnerable groups, but also vilifying these groups by framing them as responsible for a range of real or imagined social ills. Mentally ill people are responsible for mass shootings; Black and LatinX Americans are responsible for crime and socioeconomic inequality; women are to blame not earning as much as men, seeing that they are less competent. Nothing is the fault of the privileged on this top-down, non-reciprocal, hierarchical framework. Scapegoating reinforces social inequality by redistributing moral responsibility from the privileged to the least well-off, mirroring the flow of currency within the financial economy. This is a far cry from Rawls’ ideal of justice.
Scapegoating as an epistemic practice inflicts distinct harms on scapegoating victims. Pohlhais, Jr. argues that epistemic injustice perpetrates two types of primary harm: it harms the individual as an epistemic agent, and it harms the epistemic community by withholding or suppressing valuable hermeneutical resources, particularly knowledge about the lived experiences of the oppressed – knowledge that the community is entitled to and requires in order to function well (in a truth-conducive way). Scapegoating is precisely this type of injustice – an injustice that validates the worldview and epistemic standing of the privileged and discredits the lived reality and epistemic standing of the victims, thereby harming the victims and the entirely epistemic community. These harms cannot be seen as equivalent, however. The victim is harmed in a particularly egregious way, as her epistemic standing is damaged, her testimony is discredited, she is prevented from pursuing epistemic projects that stem from her lived experiences, and she is denied the right to form epistemic alliances with other disadvantaged knowers (Pohlhaus, Jr. 2014: 110), and she is then subjected to “secondary harms” (Fricker 2007: 47), such as a loss of moral, socioeconomic, and political standing. This is why scapegoating – similar to gaslighting as described by Kate Abramson (2014) – is a particularly pernicious type of epistemic injustice: it inflicts distinct epistemic, moral, and existential harms on its victims. But unlike gaslighting, which pathologizes the victim, scapegoating vilifies the victim.
5. Who is responsible for scapegoating? Responsibility as indirect control
Who is responsible for scapegoating qua epistemic injustice? Fricker says that perpetrators of testimonial injustice are culpable, unless the hermeneutical resources required to accurately frame the victim’s experiences are socio-historically unavailable, in which case the perpetrator is a victim of “epistemic bad luck” (2007: 42). Sexual harassment, for example, was non-culpable (or less-than-full-culpable) before “sexual harassment” entered the English lexicon, and the same is true of testimonial injustice against victims of sexual harassment, who could not intelligibly frame their experiences (Fricker 2007: 148).
This is a strict view of culpability, as it sees culpability as dependent on control, such that we are only culpable for epistemic transgression that we could have avoided or prevented (or otherwise controlled), either directly or indirectly. (Direct control is too strict, since many mental states are cognitively impenetrable but amenable to indirect, non-immediate control via “life hacks,” such as intergroup contact, implementation intentions, and exposure to counter-stereotypcal images [viz., Holroyd 2012, Christiane Merritt: forthcoming]; thus, indirect control is the better criterion, and currently the more popular one). Some theorists don’t require any amount of control for responsibility, but even on the ‘control view,’ most Americans would turn out to be responsible for scapegoating, given that information about group-level injustice in America is openly discussed, widely disseminated, and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection or a library card. By all appearances, the control condition is met by most Americans on Fricker’s interpretation, since the “relevant concepts” for accurately framing the epistemic harms inflicted on scapegoating victims are “socio-historically available” (2007: 100). While I can’t speak to everyone’s specific epistemic position, I can say this: if you’re reading this blog post, you’re in an epistemic position to be held responsible for scapegoating, should you go ahead and scapegoat a member of a marginalized social group.
Many responsibility theorists subscribe to a version of the indirect-control view. (Fricker is a social epistemologists, not a responsibility theorists per se, though she writes about culpability). J. M. Fischer, the protagonist on the ‘deep control view’ (2006), has never, to my knowledge, written about epistemic ignorance (which is the basis of testimonial injustice), but most theorists who have written on this topic agree that ignorance is not an excuse for wrongdoing, since ignorance can be a culpable failing. People who fail to guard against ignorance are responsible for that epistemic vice and its downstream effects.
Manual Vargas and Jose Medina seem to agree with Fricker that culpability depends on access to epistemic resources, in addition to a functional adult brain. (Children, they would say, are not fully responsible). They are optimistic that ordinary people have the baseline cognitive capacity to sort through competing social scripts, narratives, and schemas, and appraise them for credibility. Unlike totalitarian regimes, liberal democracies involve a marketplace of ideas in which epistemic resources are widely available. That said, epistemic resources may vary by geographical location – for example, 28% of Americans living in rural areas have no access to the Internet, compared to only 23% of urban Americans [Molla 2017], and rural Americans also have less access to library books (Weingarten 2017. These epistemic factors might mitigate responsibility for resource-dependent epistemic deficits, but they don’t necessarily extinguish responsibility. If indirect control is all that is needed, then perhaps neurotypical adults would be expected to stop by a library at some point in their lives. All that we can say for sure is that responsibility is almost certainly extinguished in “epistemic black holes,” i.e., locations in which relevant concepts are completely absent. North Korea involves large areas of epistemic black holes; America involves relatively few.
It is notable here that many cases of epistemic injustice are not motivated by simple ignorance, but, in Fricker’s view, by “motivated irrationality,” underpinned by “ethically noxious” motives (2007: 34). Scapegoating involves motivated irrationality in that it is motivated, as we saw, by a vested interest in protecting and perpetrating dominant frames of references. Jonathan Metzl notes that scapegoating narratives tend to use different frames of reference to explain the same behaviours in members of different social groups, even when there are no morally salient differences between the two. For example, when People of Color commit mass shootings, politicians and the media tend to frame the event as a collective or group-based problem – namely, a ‘problem with the Black community.’ This narrative has false predictive value because, if true, it would allow us to predict mass shootings on the basis of African descent. On the other hand, when white men commit mass shootings, politicians and the media tend to invoke an individualist or bad-apple framework, which allows them to frame the event as the decision of a mentally ill “lone wolf” (Metz 2017). The reason for this paradigm shift, says Metzl, is that white people identify with other white people and don’t want to see their image reflected back to them in the faces of white shooters, so they are reluctant to identify being white and male as a predictor of being a mass shooter, even though this paradigm would have much more predictive validity than their preferred scapegoating scripts. This exemplifies how scapegoating scripts rests on noxious motives – a vested interest in preserving one’s positive self-conception and privileged status as a white male.
Because scapegoating narratives, as such, involve not only pernicious consequences (the primary and secondary harms of epistemic injustice), but also noxious motives, they could be seen as blame-imputing on two counts: the agent is blameworthy for perpetrating certain harms, and perhaps also for acting on certain noxious motives. While there are debates about the moral status of implicit states (See Kelly & Roedder 2008), most people agree that a person can, under certain circumstances, be blameworthy for expressing morally problematic implicit states in his overt behaviour. Thus, scapegoaters might be blameworthy on both deontic and aretaic grounds, i.e., both for committing a moral transgression, and for expressing character flaws in their behaviour.
6. Responsibility as a social regulation mechanism (functionalism)
Many contemporary responsibility theorists reject the control condition, and subscribe to a ‘functionalist’ view on which blame is appropriate if this reaction would serve some positive social end (e.g., McGeer 2014, Bell 2014, Malle et al. 2014). Thus, people might be blameworthy even if they are irredeemable psychopaths. On this view, scapegoaters should be blamed and virtuous explainers praised, it seems, so as to establish a moral-epistemic ecology in which credible explanatory paradigms are salient, and harmful stereotypes are debunked. Blaming scapegoaters could be a way of condemning the expression of these harmful narratives and thwarting the spread of the “noxious” motives that support them. If so, then blaming scapegoaters is generally a good social policy.
This view also seems to imply that blaming public figures, whose speech is particularly visible, is an especially good social policy. Donald Trump is an example of a very public and very committed scapegoater. Trump, for example, has a habit of scapegoating Muslims for acts of terrorism, in spite of the fact that a majority of domestic terrorism is committed by non-Islamic right-wing extremists [Niewart et al. 2017]); but Trump was quick to swap the collectivist paradigm for an individualist one when he described the Las Vegas shooter as “‘a very sick man’ and a ‘very demented person,’ without mentioning anything about the shooter’s background or potential political ideology” (Metzl 2017).
Who is actually responsible for the American culture of school shootings? James Fallows argues that Mitch McConnel is perhaps more blameworthy than anyone, seeing that he blocked a bipartisan vote on gun control measures by leading a filibuster in 2013, and then Tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the Los Vegas shooting in 2017 (Fallows 2018). The ‘thoughts and prayers’ Tweet is a familiar obfuscatory tactic that substitutes a positive-thinking narrative for a causal explanation. The reason for McConnel’s decision is arguably his funding from the N.R.A. (though he is not even on the list of top-ten Senators and Congresspeople receiving N.R.A. funding [David Leonhardt et al. 2017]). McConnel, and other politicians who have accepted N.R.A. donations, then, seem to be blameworthy for thwarting gun control legislation, thereby perpetuating America’s gun culture, and for acting on ostensibly noxious (financial) motives.
On a functionalist picture, it makes sense to see Trump and McConnel as exceptionally blameworthy for scapegoating vulnerable groups and perpetrating false narratives (e.g., ‘thoughts and prayers’ are effective). But on the control view, they are potentially just as blameworthy. (I say ‘potentially’ because there are substantive questions about whether Trump has a functional adult brain, one that supports self-control [see Hamblin 2018]. In general, however, the the control view and the functionalist view converge in holding cognitively functional adults generally blameworthy for their overt scapegoating behaviours.
If we don’t reject scapegoating narratives about mass shootings and adopt evidence-based blaming practices and policies, then this Onion article might actually be our future:
*I’m not committed to saying that mental illness is a valid construct, but I’m adopting this term from the research simply to pick out a social group that is especially disadvantaged.