Few people like to take responsibility when their lives go off the expected path and end up in a ditch. So what do we do? Instead of finding the real source of problems, we have a strong tendency to find other people to blame.
The ancient Hebrews had a practice that we get our modern word “scapegoat” from. (The word was actually a mistranslation from the Hebrew, but that’s another story.) To oversimplify it a bit, basically the Hebrews would keep a record of their sins all year and then they would “transfer” that sin to the goat — before driving it out into the desert wilderness to die alone. In this way, the people were considered to be clean from their sins.
The ancient Greeks had a practice that was a bit the same, but was closer in spirit to what we do today. When there was a disaster of some sort — famine, invasion or plague, for instance — the Greeks would choose a pharmakos, who was a slave, a cripple or a criminal who was cast out of the community as a sacrifice to quiet the gods. (There’s scholarly debate as to whether they were actually killed or simply expelled from the community.)
Throughout history, humans have chosen people to blame. When bad things happened in some communities — such as a crop failure or a baby dying — unpopular women were sometimes accused of being witches and were burned as punishment. In other cases, entire groups of people were blamed. For much of history, Jews in Europe were blamed for a variety of problems. For instance, because Jews as a group did well financially, people who didn’t do as well blamed them for their problems, ascribing all sorts of negative character traits to the more-successful Jews.
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