Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

Scapegoating, Terrorism and the Innocent Victim

Scapegoating, Terrorism and the Innocent Victim


Index# 10021

Professor Steven Walker

T 9:50-12:50

HC S120 College Ave Campus

Scapegoating and terrorism have been the bane of human history and are a serious problem for society today. As analyzed by René Girard in his classic study The Scapegoat, scapegoating involves the accusation and punishment of innocent victims for crimes they have not committed.  For Girard, scapegoats are always innocent of the specific charges laid against them; the accusations are always false; scapegoating is always a heinous act of injustice. So why do people do it? As we shall see, scapegoating is a largely unconscious process, involving what the psychologist C.G. Jung has called “shadow projection.” If people were aware of what they were doing, they would not scapegoat, since the idea of punishing people for crimes they have not committed deeply offends our ethical sense.

Terrorism might seem to be a related, if distinct, phenomenon. It, too, punishes innocent victims. However, by contrast with scapegoating, terrorism involves the deliberate and conscious choice of its victims. But to what degree might it also, like scapegoating, involve unconscious shadow projection? This is one of the questions we will address in the course of the latter part of the seminar.

Understanding the paradigm of scapegoating is fairly simple, but analyzing in depth the occurrences of scapegoating can be complicated. For that reason we will first look to literary texts such as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the Book of Job and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India for clear illustrations of this complex phenomenon. Scapegoating theory may be clear, but life is messy; fortunately, art can often clarify what is obscure and murky in real life. Having gotten a clear sense of the process of scapegoating through the study of some pertinent literary texts, we will move on to examining actual occurrences of scapegoating in real life, including bullying and xenophobic persecution. For, in the end, the study of scapegoating also has a practical dimension, in that it should enable us to recognize scapegoating when it begins to occur and to intervene before the process turns catastrophic.

Terrorism, by contrast, might seem to be a simple case of horrible people choosing deliberately to do heinous acts. Louise Richardson’s book What Terrorists Want provides a more nuanced perspective, and —somewhat paradoxically—so will an ancient Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Ajax. From a practical standpoint, understanding terrorism as a pseudo-rational but also unconsciously motivated process may suggest better ways of reacting to it and of dealing with it more effectively.

About Professor Walker

STEVEN F. WALKER, Professor of Comparative Literature, holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin (B.A. in classical Greek) and Harvard (M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). He teaches in both the graduate and undergraduate programs in Comparative Literature, and he is a direct descendent (really!) of Henry Rutgers. He has been reading Jung voraciously since his undergraduate days.