David Clark has become the oldest of ritual objects: a scapegoat, writes Dr Deane Galbraith and Dr Ben Schonthal

The casting out of David Clark has been a spectacle of biblical proportions. We mean that quite literally. 

The Health Minister’s mistakes were serious and the media is right to hold our officials to account. But there is more that needs explaining: the gleeful carnival of public abuse that seems to have accompanied this particular breach and not others. That was nothing short of religious in nature.

Clark has become the oldest of ritual objects, a scapegoat. The scapegoat is an ancient institution, with its origins in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Leviticus recounts that Aaron, the brother of Moses, undertakes a ritual requiring that two goats are prepared for slaughter. One was to be offered to God while the other would be invested with the community’s sins. More specifically, the second animal was to be ritually transformed from a pure object worthy of the divine to a blighted creature, a vessel for carrying the misdeeds of an entire people.

As recounted in biblical passages, the process sounds simple enough: a combination of words and gestures could transfer a year’s worth of collective malfeasance onto a single unlucky beast. The community’s sins expiated, the animal would then be cast off a cliff and dashed to pieces, taking with it the group’s offences.

The scapegoat is named ‘Azazel’ in the Bible. But later, Jews go further and identify Azazel with the rebellious angel who fell from heaven near the beginning of time. For Christians, this fallen angel Azazel will in turn become known as ‘Satan.’ In the Bible, scapegoating leads, again literally, to demonisation.

By giving us a ready vessel for carrying off our sins, the scapegoat ritual allows us to unburden ourselves from the heavy and uncomfortable work of self-reckoning and introspection.

The mechanics of scapegoating appear in other religious traditions as well. In ancient Greece and Mesoamerica, humans were sometimes sacrificed to as a way to protect communities from supernatural wrath. In other cultures, collective fears and anxieties were projected onto ghosts or demons, which would be exorcised or destroyed in elaborate ritual dramas.

The French scholar of religion, René Girard, famously credited the scapegoat mechanism with saving social groups from collapse. By projecting onto a single sacrificial victim, the internal hatreds that inevitably arise in any human society, human communities could substitute a lesser violence (the destruction of a single creature) for a greater violence (the destruction of entire social groups).

Girard’s instincts have been confirmed by social scientists representing a variety of disciplines. Identifying objects of castigation, whether particular individuals or larger ‘outgroups,’ we now know temporarily boosts one’s own sense of self-worth while also solidifying the boundaries of an imagined ‘ingroup’. 

The social and psychological utility of the scapegoat mechanism, however, belies its cunningness as a mode of thought. In substituting the lesser evil for the greater, the act of scapegoating preoccupies us with personal attacks rather than attuning us to larger, systemic social problems. By giving us a ready vessel for carrying off our sins, the scapegoat ritual allows us to unburden ourselves from the heavy and uncomfortable work of self-reckoning and introspection.

Most insidiously, the scapegoat distracts us from other, ongoing acts of malfeasance that (for whatever reasons) don’t generate the same surplus of resentment, such as the reckless distortions of fact coming from the shadow Minister of Health. The scapegoat may be psychologically convenient, even comforting, but it is a palliative, not a cure, for our frustrations, anger and anxiety.

David Clark messed up. And citizens are right to be upset. But let’s not kid ourselves. Turning his mistakes, consequential as they were, into a public spectacle of derision is less about celebrating the victory of right over wrong than our collective indulgence in a much older activity, a ritual trick, which tells us less about the minister and more about ourselves.

Dr Deane Galbraith teaches in the Religion Programme in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Otago.

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