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The Theory Of Scapegoats
by [?]

“Alas, how easily things go wrong!” says Dr. George MacDonald. And all the world over, when things do go wrong, the natural and instinctive desire of the human animal is–to find a scapegoat. When the great French nation in the lump embarks its capital in a hopeless scheme for cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, and then finds out too late that Nature has imposed insuperable barriers to its completion on the projected scale–what does the great French nation do, in its collective wisdom, but turn round at once to rend the directors? It cries, “A Mazas!” just as in ’71 it cried “Bazaine a la lanterne!” I don’t mean to say the directors don’t deserve all they have got or ever will get, and perhaps more also; I don’t mean to deny corruption extraordinary in many high places; as a rule the worst that anybody alleges about anything is only a part of what might easily be alleged if we were all in the secret. Which of us, indeed, would ‘scape whipping? But what I do mean is, that we should never have heard of Reinach or Herz, of the corruption and peculation, at all if things had gone well. It is the crash that brought them out. The nation wants a scapegoat. “Ain’t nobody to be whopped for this ‘ere?” asked Mr. Sam Weller on a critical occasion. The question embodies the universal impulse of humanity.

Tracing the feeling back to its origin, it seems due to this: minds of the lower order can never see anything go wrong without experiencing a certain sense of resentment; and resentment, by its very nature, desires to vent itself upon some living and sentient creature, by preference a fellow human being. When the child, running too fast, falls and hurts itself, it gets instantly angry. “Naughty ground to hurt baby!” says the nurse: “Baby hit it and hurt it.” And baby promptly hits it back, with vicious little fist, feeling every desire to revenge itself. By-and-by, when baby grows older and learns that the ground can’t feel to speak of, he wants to put the blame upon somebody else, in order to have an object to expend his rage upon. “You pushed me down!” he says to his playmate, and straightway proceeds to punch his playmate’s head for it–not because he really believes the playmate did it, but because he feels he must have some outlet for his resentment. When once resentment is roused, it will expend its force on anything that turns up handy, as the man who has quarrelled with his wife about a question of a bonnet, will kick his dog for trying to follow him to the club as he leaves her.

The mob, enraged at the death of Caesar, meets Cinna the poet in the streets of Rome. “Your name, sir?” inquires the Third Citizen. “Truly, my name is Cinna,” says the unsuspecting author. “Tear him to pieces!” cries the mob; “he’s a conspirator!” “I am Cinna the poet,” pleads the unhappy man; “I am not Cinna the conspirator!” But the mob does not heed such delicate distinctions at such a moment. “Tear him for his bad verses!” it cries impartially. “Tear him for his bad verses!”

Whatever sort of misfortune falls upon persons of the lower order of intelligence is always met in the same spirit. Especially is this the case with the deaths of relatives. Fools who have lost a friend invariably blame somebody for his fatal illness. To hear many people talk, you would suppose they were unaware of the familiar proposition that all men are mortal (including women); you might imagine they thought an ordinary human constitution was calculated to survive nine hundred and ninety-nine years unless some evil-disposed person or persons took the trouble beforehand to waylay and destroy it. “My poor father was eighty-seven when he died; and he would have been alive still if it weren’t for that nasty Mrs. Jones: she put him into a pair of damp sheets.” Or, “My husband would never have caught the cold that killed him, if that horrid man Brown hadn’t kept him waiting so long in the carriage at the street corner.” The doctor has to bear the brunt of most such complaints; indeed, it is calculated by an eminent statistician (who desires his name to remain unpublished) that eighty-three per cent. of the deaths in Great Britain might easily have been averted if the patient had only been treated in various distinct ways by all the members of his family, and if that foolish Dr. Squills hadn’t so grossly mistaken and mistreated his malady.