A wry, entertaining study of the history of blame.
The book is comprised of 14 short essays in which former Literary Review books editor Campbell discusses types of scapegoats as well as some of the psychological and social reasons why humans seem unable to break the habit of “targeting minorities and marginalized groups when things go wrong.” The author claims that scapegoating “goes right back to the beginning of mankind.” The earliest human cultures had rituals that professed to do away with the wrongs of entire communities and aid in the return to an imaginary state of innocence. They sometimes used animals as sacrificial victims; more often, though, these cultures used those on the social fringes—e.g., criminals, slaves, the disabled—to bear the burden of their collective sins. Belief systems seem to be at the core of all scapegoating throughout history, since most of them are built on the fundamental dualism of good and evil. The unfortunate result has been an “us versus them” mentality that is really an expression of a “refusal to accept responsibility for our actions.” Campbell suggests that blame is a driving engine of histories both great and small. Not only did it bring about the Crusades and the Holocaust; it was also behind the 19th-century trial of a Great Auk charged with witchcraft. Blame is a way for creatures “who pride [themselves] on being the most intelligent life-form on earth” to make sense of a chaotic world—and reveal their ultimate stupidity.