Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scapegoating and blame (6/13)

Dear all,
    Well, we had a lovely wedding.  There is something about a community gathering around, with each person offering their strand to weave a strong container to hold a couple that I find deeply hopeful and reassuring.
    And our region is caught in a weather cycle that brings hot, humid days, and a strong late afternoon thunderstorm, day in and day out, with no end in sight.  It feels like we're in the tropics.  My short-term response is to enjoy the storms and get up early enough to garden in the beauty and cool of early morning.  The longer-term response is less clear, but I know it will require working together in hope and faith, something I would wish for us in any case.

Scapegoating and blame

We started with the topic of scapegoating, as it is seen in the treatment of Jews.  I have some familiarity with this dynamic:  for centuries in the West, Jews—an easily identifiable minority with a strong cultural bent toward learning—have been used by those in power as their up-front agents, especially as money lenders and bankers.  When the economic or political situation sours, their vulnerable minority status allows them to be named and targeted as the problem, providing an outlet for the pent-up anger and frustration of the populace, while shielding those with real power. 

We have created an “other” to whom blame can be assigned; punishment has been meted out; the problem has been contained; and life for the rest of us can go on.  While the Holocaust was perhaps the most calculated and certainly the most horrendous example of this type of scapegoating, the examples are legion, and the impulse to blame the Jews has burrowed deep, if often unconscious, into our common psyche.

I hadn’t done much more systematic thinking about this dynamic, but a friend who was a child in Germany during World War II raised the issue of Germans as scapegoats.  People who take a stand against the barbaric treatment of Jews under Hitler can easily fall into seeing the Germans as the problem.  How convenient!  If we can assign the blame for anti-semitism to the Germans, we are off the hook.  We have created an “other”, the problem has been addressed, and life for the rest of us, now rendered blameless, can go on.  In a very similar fashion, an image of Germans as the bad guys has burrowed deep.

It becomes obvious that the same dynamic is at work around racism.  Those of us who live in the North in the United States can be easily seduced into a belief that true racism resides in the South.  Having created an “other” and assigned the blame, we are off the hook about racism, and can bask happily in our more evolved goodness.

Clearly scapegoating has many uses.  It channels dissatisfaction away from the real issues, thus supporting the status quo and obstructing change.  It provides a safe target for venting our feelings.  It helps us avoid painful truths by freeing us from the responsibility of considering our part in the situation.  We can use it to jack up our sense of our own goodness.

As we saw all the overlap between scapegoating and blame, the conversation got more personal.  Could we survive without blame? How often do we assign blame in a situation of disagreement or conflict, and see that as an adequate response?  What if we actually had to do something?  Are we willing to confront our part in the situation, face our complicity, and decide to be different?  Could we find a way to do that without blaming ourselves?

The challenge is full of opportunities.  If blame is not an option, then situations just have to be faced for what they are, which allows for ways forward to be found. If no one is to blame—neither me nor, most commonly, my partner—then no one can be consigned to the status of “other” and the task is simply to find a path out of this less-than-ideal situation.  Even when I feel that the other person is totally in the wrong, if I can vent without targeting and take the lead in finding a blame-free way forward, I’m the one who gets to grow.

Then the conversation broadened back out—way out.  “Maybe”, said one young women, “this is why I haven’t found a way to be involved in social change.  It seems like it’s all about finding bad guys and pointing fingers.”  Ultimately, it won’t help to blame the bad guys either—not even the ones who are wielding the real power.  They need to take responsibility and change, but scapegoating and blame are ultimately the tools of the insecure.  An infinitely more powerful approach mirrors the way a loving parent sets a limit with a small child.  “I’m not going to let you do that, sweetie.”  There’s no blame—just compassion for the person hidden behind that bad behavior, and great confidence that things can be different.

I think we all left with our minds atingle.  I certainly went away newly excited about the possibilities of a world without blame.

Dare to imagine:  A new economy is possible!

What about a maximum wage?

The moral imperative for a minimum wage is clear. But what about a maximum wage?  It’s not hard to make the case that something needs to be done.  Back in 1965, US CEOs in major companies earned 24 times more than the average (not minimum wage) worker. A typical American CEO now makes 380 times more than the average worker.

Around the world, change is in the wind.  An Egyptian ruling that a maximum wage in the public and government sectors be no more than 35 times the minimum wage has been in force since January 2012.  France’s president last summer promised to cap the salary of company leaders at 20 times that of their lowest-paid worker.  In February, new code amendments of the German Corporate Governance Commission, which all German companies follow, were released, including a mandate that all publicly-traded firms place a cap on executive compensation. While the specific executive pay maximum is left up to each corporation, the Commission made it clear that current pay levels have soared too high.  Perhaps the time has come in the US to talk about a maximum wage as well.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The practice in Finland of prorating traffic fines according to the net wealth of the driver.

The growing movement in Philadelphia of community gardens, urban food initiatives, and vacant lot protection that brings agriculture, justice, health and nutrition, community organizing and labor together in exciting new ways.

The consistency with which polling reveals voters who demonstrate more generosity, compassion and open-mindedness than the politicians who represent them.

The rooftop greenhouse project, Gotham Greens, which has partnered with Whole Foods to build the nation's first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse for growing year-round local produce atop a food store in Brooklyn beginning this fall.

New:  posts on other people's blogs: 

More resources:
NEW:  Check out my friend Daniel Hunter's new book, a narrative of direct action campaigning:  Strategy & Soul: A Campaigner's Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to

My favorite magazine:  YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world: 

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