We’re All Ahabs in Search of the Great White Scapegoat

Queequeg and His Harpoon

I recently saw the opera “Moby Dick,” composed by Jack Heggie. As we know, Moby Dick is the great white whale who took off Captain Ahab’s leg and sent the revengeful Ahab on a lifetime quest to punish the creature. Poor whale. He was  just defending himself against all those harpoons.

Humans being what they are — symbolizing creatures — the whale was not only reduced to a “dumb beast,” as characterized by author Herman Melville through Ahab, but also became a symbol of evil, of infinite threat, of fear of the unknown, of death itself.

In other words, the poor whale was doomed to be the great white scapegoat for Ahab and his group of whalers.

Ahab’s leg got chewed for lots of reasons: bad luck, incompetence, risk associated with trying to get the creature’s oil, or perhaps just plain careless. But Ahab instead made it into a grand quest for payback. And that’s also what humans do: they infuse their symbolic objects with symbolic heroic pursuits. Which is fortunate, for without that tendency there would be no stories and no remarkable cultural inventions, like opera, to bring them to life.

What’s interesting about Moby Dick in particular is the deftness with which Ahab (or, rather, Melville) spun his story and his quest for revenge —and how he convinced the sailors under his command to join in. For two years they followed Ahab in his obsessive hunt, ignoring money, home, kids, everything except the desire to confront and kill Moby Dick. As the opera says at the end, we are all Ahabs, and, like his sailors, will die to be like him.

Ahab’s quest represents one of our species most critical instincts, hunting. Mammals spend most of the time hunting. Often it’s the females who are the hunters among larger mammalslike lions. Hunting is absolutely necessary for survival.

Humans have worked hard to redefine the act of hunting to make it more than just killing for survival. We’ve crafted rituals, celebrations, religions around the act of hunting. Humans can be easily fooled into believing that our actions reflect something larger, something greater than the sum of us, and maybe it’s true.

But peel away the layers a little and look carefully: hunting can be hunting, nothing more. It’s instinctual, not necessarily metaphysical, behavior. When the primal hunter fantasy that Ahab represents is tapped, as it is Moby Dick, the instinct is mobilized. The group mind is activated and it takes over. Any individuals who hold back will be scapegoated.

The Nazis hunted Jews, Gypsies, gays, “Negroes,” and whoever else stood in the way of their greater goal — world domination. Nazis saw themselves as the masters of the World Hunt. But the Nazis were the German people. Ultimately, few could resist the group mindset and those who tried were added to the list of victims. As the Bible says, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” We are all complicit.

Is there a way to escape being in the hunt? To get beyond scapegoating? Check out my TEDx presentation. Near the end of the video I talk of things like education, interpretation, and also the separating of scapegoating into its component parts, including bullying and hazing.

We are just in the beginning stages of addressing scapegoating and its ancillary social evils; we’ve just begun our foray into changing our nature.

I hope to learn more about this from you and to add your thoughts to my own ideas and research. Understanding the scapegoating process itself is critical for prevention and treatment.


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