Archives for November 2012

Moral Injury: Scapegoating as a Means to Survive Trauma

Scapegoating is so ubiquitous and commonplace that it hardly needs social science “lab” experiments for further illumination. Still, it helps to see something of the mechanisms at work.

In the well-known and ethically controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, one group of students acted as prisoners and the others as jailers (the aggressive and sadistic behaviors pushed by role expectations of the “prison guards” was truly shocking). In another similar experiment, students “thought” they were giving electric shocks to a paired group. It took very little for them to escalate the punishment to voltage levels they had been told were dangerous.

The above examples underscore our innate violence and are not necessarily about  scapegoating, which requires a group emphasis. But in a letter to the editor in a recent New Yorker magazine, Wayne Klug, a professor of psychology at Berkshire Community College, mentioned an interesting follow up to the “electric shock” experiment that falls squarely into the scapegoating realm.

According to Klug, the students who thought they were punishing their peers were asked, after a decent interval, why they did what they did. Their responses contained disparaging notions about their victims (who they had no information about) as justifications for their behavior. And that is classic scapegoating behavior — deferring responsibility to the vulnerable ones.

In his own experiments, Klug studied American war veterans who had killed Iraqis during the war. Who did they disparage? American civilians, not the Iraqis! An interesting leap, which Klug suggested was the veterans’ “preemptive judgment against those who might negatively judge them.” Perhaps they had learned from the past when some Americans had disparaged the soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam.

Laying blame has been used effectively by soldiers as a way to heal the traumas they experienced in the field. I have worked with some of them, and what I found was that the search for a victim is part of the healing process — in this case, their “scapegoat” was “spoiled, detached, ‘not in my backyard’ Americans” who didn’t do enough to help them, or who supported anti-war efforts in the first place but then turned their backs on the returning vets.

That reaction by traumatized soldiers is violence subdued and transformed into scapegoating  — but it is still violence attached to emotions of revenge.

Sorting out these issues requires the largest possible view of each circumstance and a deep understanding of what the unintended consequences of what individuals  cling to when attempting to survive unspeakable traumas, like war.