My therapist often points out that it is the the things which we most dislike about ourselves which we most hate in others. This is how projection works; we deal with the “worst” parts of ourselves by projecting them into others, and then we hurl down on those others all the hatred, shame and revulsion we feel for those parts of ourselves. By doing this we imagine that we can somehow purge ourselves of the bad feelings, and they will go away.

So too with scapegoating; societies attempt to deal with envy, frustration, insecurity and the resulting violence  which threaten to destabilise them by selecting an individual or group to act as a vessel for these threats, which can then be dealt with by expelling or executing that person or persons as the embodiment of the “bad things”.

Of course, in this it helps if the person or group can be perceived as “other”.  When we practice projection as an individual, another person is automatically “other”, but in scapegoating, societies need to find an individual or group which is “not like us”. Almost anything will do here; differences in race, religion or sexuality are often the excuse; otherwise, we can try people who are visibly “other” by virtue of physical or mental handicap, or unusual, eccentric or even just different behaviour or appearance. Troubled by what is happening in your society? Why not persecute a lonely old woman with a cat? Accusing people of being a witch gone out of fashion? Surely there must be a slightly odd-looking retired teacher you can smear all over the front pages of the tabloids based on no evidence whatsoever, as happened to Christopher Jeffries following the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol.

And once you have selected your scapegoat and reassured yourself that they are the living embodiment of whatever it is that you hate and fear, it becomes easy. You can hate and fear them; you can reassure yourselves that they are bad and wrong, that they “deserve what’s coming to them”. You can expel them from normal human society with its checks and balances and individual protections and once you have done that, you can do to them whatever you like.

More tomorrow.