The scapegoat mechanism describes how groups of people will latch onto a “scapegoat”—sometimes an individual, sometimes another group of people—to take the unmerited blame for their problems. Developed by folks like René Girard, this theory is taken from Leviticus 16, wherein the priest was instructed to take a literal goat, symbolically place the sins of the people onto it, and then send it out into the wilderness, banishing the people’s sins along with it.
Central to this concept is the fact that the scapegoat is innocent of the accusations directed against them. The people making the accusations are projecting their own shortcomings onto the scapegoat, rather than dealing with their problems themselves. They pour their anger into the scapegoat, persecuting, killing, banishing, or otherwise doing away with them, thus achieving catharsis and creating a temporary peace within their group.
We see this play out when conservatives make a scapegoat out of South American immigrants, blaming them for any number of problems in their communities. And we see it when conservatives make a scapegoat out of the LGBTQ community, blaming them for any number of problems in their own marriages. Lest this start to feel one sided, we also see it when liberals make a scapegoat out of homeless populations, blaming them for any number of problems in their cities.
These are instances of scapegoating because the scapegoats aren’t actually the ones causing the problems. Those making the accusations are projecting their own issues onto the scapegoats. It makes them feel good, it gives them an “other” against which they can rally, but it doesn’t solve their root problems, and it causes additional harm to the people scapegoated.
This brings us to wearing masks and getting the vaccine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I keep hearing folks claim that anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are being “scapegoated” for their actions. And that’s just patently absurd.
For sure, a lot of folks are angry at anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. I am entirely out of patience with them myself. And absolutely, precautions are being taken to keep the unmasked and unvaccinated away from the rest of the population. But the difference between these actions and scapegoating is the simple fact that the accused are very much guilty of the charges brought against them. They are the problem.
Masks save lives. Vaccines save lives. This science is not disputable or up for debate. And it’s not merely about the lives of those who wear the masks and get the vaccines. Those who choose not to get vaccinated or refuse to wear masks are literally killing other people with their selfish actions. Of course we’re outraged about that.
Folks keep framing this in terms of individual liberty, but any individual’s liberty must end where another person’s life begins. We have the liberty to drive our vehicles on the road, but we do not have the liberty to drive while drunk or at unsafe speeds or in the wrong lanes. Preventing people from breaking the rules of the road is not scapegoating them. Being angry at drunk drivers who kill people is not projecting our own problems onto them. Those who make driving unsafe are the problem.
Why is this so obvious when it comes to things like driving safety but so hard for people to grasp when it comes to safety during a global pandemic?
It would be one thing if refusing masks or choosing not to vaccinate were only putting at risk the lives of the people who make those decisions for themselves. But that isn’t the case at all. There are so many people who do not have the option to get vaccinated, and they are relying on everyone else making the right decision to keep them safe. Literally every child under 12 is currently ineligible for the vaccine, along with a number of other specific cases, and they need us to step up and do the right thing.
And look, I understand that people have hesitations. I understand that some communities in particular have more historical reasons than others to be skeptical of such things. I want to have sympathy for folks who just aren’t sure. But people are dying. The virus is spreading and muting, and we have to get it under control. We’ve had plenty of time by now for folks to work through their uncertainties and make the right decision.
And contrary to conservative fearmongering, absolutely no one in this country is being forced to get the vaccine. You do have the option not to get it, and that’s incredibly unlikely to change. But you should not expect to be able to keep your employment if your work brings you into contact with vulnerable people who could die from their exposure to you. That’s just obvious.
And likewise, no one should expect to be allowed without a mask into spaces where it’s proven that masks save lives. Wearing a mask is barely even an inconvenience, let alone any kind of oppression. For all the decades that conservatives have been calling liberals “snowflakes” for God-knows-what reason, this is what they’re choosing to freak out about? Wearing a tiny scrap of fabric around their faces to literally save lives? You seriously can’t handle that? Give me a break!
Folks, just get the shot. Wear your mask. And listen to science long enough for us to finally make progress through this pandemic. Life exists at the other end, but only if we survive. All it takes is some compassion for the vulnerable, some common sense, and trusting the actual scientific data on these matters.
If you’re not going to do that, then you absolutely should be excluded from public life. That isn’t scapegoating. It’s nothing more than preventing selfish assholes from killing people. No different than keeping driving drunk drivers off the road.