Dr. Scapegoat: Have You Heard of the ‘Knocker’?

Dear Dr. Scapegoat,

You might be interested in the role of the “knocker” in a slaughterhouse. While everyone participates in the killing, the knocker is considered “the killer” and “crazy.” The knocker shoots the cow in the head, though the technical moment of killing/death happens a few steps later… No one wants to talk to him/her and he is even segregated to a particular place in the slaughterhouse for changing clothes and using the bathroom. — Susan P.

Thank you for this remarkable information. Slaughterhouses are definitely institutions that are really taboo, the sort of place nobody wants in their neighborhood! Most of us never visit and actually don’t want to know what goes on. What’s really interesting is how the central actor in the animal’s slaughter is treated within the institution itself: How specifically he is made taboo (just like the original scapegoat sent out to the wilderness). And how he (or she?) is assigned characteristics that make him persona non grata in ordinary society and makes scapegoat behavior by the group acceptable.

Human executioners are treated like this as well. That’s part of the reason for the hood in earlier times. And now course we do the same to our “knockers” when the cause they represent is needed but unpopular. I remember how participants in the Vietnam War were vilified when they came home and how this ostracizing led to many, many suicides.


  1. I have been interested in watching how our society deals with the returning military personnel from our current wars. Since we no longer have a draft, it’s really easy for most Americans to not have any personal involvement in the wars. (If we DID have a draft, if the sons of people with power were being forced to deal with being part of the military, we would have pulled out of Afghanistan , etc. long ago.) During the last election the wars were hardly a blip on the radar (gun control, too.).

    From time to time the news media will carry stories about soldiers serving their fourth or fifth tour, about the families of soldiers losing their homes because banks foreclose against the law, about the soaring rate of mental illness, spousal abuse, divorce among returning veterans. We are told about the utter lack of resources to help the returning vets. And then it all goes away until a vet shots 20 people and we get the cycle of stories all over again.

    Obviously as a society we want to make these “knockers” go as far away from us as we can, even while, as a society, we also realize, on some level, we’re failing them and it’s dangerous for us to continue doing so.

    A member of my family is a career naval officer and I mentioned to his wife that I didn’t understand why our society refused to live up to its promises to the soldiers. I was flabbergasted as her response: “There is no problem. It’s just all the liberal media trying to make us [the military] look bad and pathetic. There is plenty of help available but nobody needs it. We don’t know anyone who’s having difficulty nor do any of our friends [in the military].” And then she refused to discuss it any further.

    • drscapegoat says:

      I spent three years treating Vietnam psychiatric casualties at Walter Reed. I know much less about more recent casualties and veterans. I think the “knockers” capture the powerful role of the scapegoat for groups (us) who both need their services in a variety of slaughter house scenes and are horrified by what they are required to do in order to feed and protect us, that is in order for us to survive..
      My experience of the military taught me a great deal about community cohesion. Within the subgroup of military bases and the nearby suburbs which often hold discharged vets and their families there is an enviable closeness not often found in similar civilian locales. The military base itself is a model of a town with all services compacted into a small area and available. Without and immersing myself in this world I would have held man y of the stereotypes that create “knockerism.”
      That is not to say that we shouldn’t be treating the serviceman who return from our bidding much much better and there are giant cracks in the system.

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