Scapegoating and Conspiracy Theories

Catastrophic events and worrisome trends are blamed on the targeted group, often framed as a consequence of their immorality. Similarly, people imagine that people in the oppressed group have shadowy powers and a hidden control on the levers of power and thus falsely accuse them of manipulating the community and creating the various ills of society. 

We regularly face unpredictable and devastating events that remind us that we only have a small measure of control over our environment. We are subject to natural disasters, economic depressions, and a nearly endless list of personal and political calamities. Rather than acknowledge their lack of power, politicians and other community leaders cast blame on politically marginalized groups.

  1. Scapegoating occurs when a person or group is wrongly blamed for a tragedy or an alarming shift in the fortunes of the community. Political leaders are often vulnerable to dissent and rebellion, so instead of acknowledging that they messed up or that some problems are beyond their control, they blame an oppressed person or group as the cause of the problem. 

Scapegoating is amplified by allegations that the targeted person or group is engaging in irresponsible or immoral behavior, and that their wicked actions have brought about the larger problem at hand. 

  1. Conspiracy theories are simple explanations of complex events. The explanations offer little to no evidence, but they draw on popular prejudices and misconceptions and thus appeal to a person’s feeling and intuition. Many conspiracy theories have nothing to do with oppression, but oppression is often bolstered by conspiracy theories that attack a targeted group. 
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Plagues
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Groups for Famine
  • After the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin took control of the Russian government and imposed a brutal dictatorship. Food supplies ran dangerously low and people began to starve. “Lenin needed an enemy. So he invented a new class of Russian “kulaks,” or rich peasants – whom he claimed were hoarding grain and deliberately starving the rest of the country, particularly the cities.” By scapegoating a class of individuals, Lenin avoided taking any blame for the catastrophic famine. There was no truth to this story, but it was widely believed because it came from the leadership of the ruling party. (Source: Lenin by Victor Sebestyen, pg. 392) Over the next two decades, millions of peasants were killed by Lenin and Stalin’s policies. 
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Economic Downturns
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Losing a War
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Acts of Terror
  1. Blaming Targeted Groups for Missing Children

How to Diminish the Power of Scandals and Scapegoating: The way to combat vicious gossip and storytelling is to think critically (thus avoiding hasty generalizations) and take the rules of evidence seriously. This starts with good education, but every individual who values truth is a significant obstacle to the proliferation of these stories. Other people may see these individuals question, probe, and doubt the gossip that they hear, and many will follow their lead.