Violence and Scapegoating – Is this the response to economic injustice?

Following on the discussion about the riot, I have some other reflections on the theme of scape-goating. At the weekend retreat we looked at the issue of power and scapegoating, and I have been reflecting how this street violence maybe an expression of this.

When I was at a comprehensive school I was in quite a rough class, and there was one guy who I would now recognise for being gay, who was constantly being picked on. Not only was he gay but he came from quite a poor family – which stood out in his clothing and sports kit. He was relentlessly bullied by the richer more able kids from the affluent suburbs. One day, he could not take it anymore, and he flipped out and raged beating up a class room and our possessions one lunch time. He simply could not take the violence expressed at him anymore – and in his rage and powerlessness – he took out his rage on the only thing he had the power to do – on his environment.

For the last year we have as a society been doing economic violence to the poor and young with reductions in social and health care, the ending of projects to reduce poverty and the effects of poverty – and now huge unemployment particularly of the young – where all the resources are still being held by the boomers who had grants for education, a free health service and a lot more possibilities.  These opportunities have been squandered by greed and selfishness and are now not available to anyone but the rich. In the cuts sure-start and many many worthwhile projects seeking to challenge and eleviate poverty have ended – creating ghettoisation in our now market society that actively excluded the poor. In a world where everything is about competition rather than co-operation we have recreated a society modelled on the rules of the class room I mentioned earlier.

Just may be the poor including the excluded many young people who have experienced the violence of exclusion and economic injustice have expressed their rage and anger at the only thing they can – their environment in front of them again like that class room. Scape-goating is when the powerful project their violence and raging at others – and just may be this is what we have done as a society justified by the language of prudent economics.

A final thought – are the unspoken rules of a class society. The rich express their crime through sociopathic gain by manipulating others such as the politicians expense scam, many of this is expressed power abuse to those perceived to be over lower class. This is then expressed down the chain to those who are at the bottom who are expected just to absorb the violence – like the victim of a bully. May be some of the anger I hear on the news is because of peoples anger that some of the most marginalised people in our society didn’t just take the abuse of our current unjust social system – may be our anger is because they have expressed their anger back at society – breaking the rules of a bully – and our anger is because the scapegoat has fought back by naming their anger against the shops as the environment.

I find it interesting to see the anger that starts with the actions of those who did the rioting. No one is asking what caused this rioting to act out all round the country – why are we unwilling to ask what is the cause? May be it is because we would then need to face our responsibilities for creating an unjust society whose values of competition will always do violence through the language of competition? In so doing we are collectively the bully and we are collectively scapegoating…


POSTED 10.08.11 BY: ianmobsby | Comments (11)

11 Responses to “Violence and Scapegoating – Is this the response to economic injustice?”

  1. On August 10th, 2011 at 11:16 am phil_style said:

    Ian, interesting observation (analogy) with respect to the marginalised guy from your school class. I want to push back a little though, with respect to whether or not we can extend that metaphor to the problem we are currently experiencing. Firstly, how can we be sure that this “mob” is experiencing the social isolation that an individual feels? I’ve got my doubts. There are large parts of society that I am isolated from, yet I still find solidarity with those who are like me. The same goes for all members of “society”. What’s clear from the riots, is that the rioters themselves are NOT completely socially isolated. They have extensive social networks and internal heirarchies of their own.

    We must be careful also, not to reverse the scapegoating and blame conservative policies, which, in many cases, have not yet taken effect. Many local councils are still operating on pre-cut budget years, the “cuts” have, in fact, not started yet.

    As Girard observes, scapegoating is manifest in the violence ACTED out (not merely in the course of linguistics and dialogue). To apply the concept of scapegoating fairly, one would have to ask “why are the rioters doing violence, who are THEY treating as a scapegoat in order to act out their memetic desire”?

    For the record, I’m not a conservative, nor do I vote for conservative politics.. 😉

  2. On August 10th, 2011 at 3:55 pm PeterR said:

    Phil, I agree with you about two aspects: that this is not a simple example of damaged individuals and that this is not (yet) the consequence of the main cuts.

    That said, I agree with Ian that this kind of anger is not just consumerist greed but also the fruit of something deeper. While we should not take away individuals’ moral responsibility for their own actions – including greed and sggression – we also need to see both where the violence is directed and where is originates. Something about the rule of the soundbite, the thought-free reflex denunciation, and the convenient blindness to the planks in the eyes of the socially and financially secure, perhaps contributes to the blend of helpless rage and directionless alienation that turn ordinary desire to own stuff into careless violence and unthinking damage to other people (who may well be just as alienated but handling it differently).

    So I’m afraid I find it far too big for one-sided moralisation that sees only one aspect of the offence (whichever that may be).

    And I salute those like Mike who have made an opportunity for community out of this violence and destruction, in the clean-up effort and the rebuilding that goes with that. Diagnosis is one thing, but “the point is to change it” …

  3. On August 10th, 2011 at 11:03 pm Chelle said:


    isn’t it amazing how God keeps working at us so that just when the time is right we can respond in the moment with depth – I think that’s what your writing about the riots reveal about you and Moot.

    In relation to scapegoating (do I detect the influence of Girard/ James Allison?!) I think it needs to be tempered with our understanding of how love works. I think love might be a positive concept which is elucidated by scapegoating as it’s negative equivalent – both trying to reference something similar in human dynamics. It’s not just about pent up anger, it’s deep existential pain. Here is a fb post from a Melbourne writer friend of mine, Alicia Winters, which sums up what I have in my mind:

    “a friend asked me last week what was the opposite of love… apathy I said. Could it be possible that a whole society of tired, brow-beaten law abiding citizens have rampaged not in hatred or as a reprisal but simply becasue they no longer care… because at the heart of it all, no-one cares about them? I just wonder…”

  4. On August 11th, 2011 at 10:27 am James_Vincent said:

    What caused the looting: choice. The choice of people to go out, smash their way into a shop and take something that wasn’t theirs. Their economic and social backgrounds on this matter are completely irrelevant. Indeed, the headlines today are pointing out that one of the first people to be charged and put before a magistrate is the daughter of a millionaire. Are they expressing their disgust at the underclass of society by parodying them in an ironic fashion? No, they’re choosing to do those things for the same reasons as the casual-drug using fourth child of a single parent.

    If we’re talking about root causes, would it not be more relevant in this situation to discuss things like why they chose to act? In my opinion, and based upon previous experience, it’s because actions are seen today as “it’s wrong if I get caught”, and people either don’t fear the consequences of being caught or that they don’t think they will be caught.

  5. On August 11th, 2011 at 1:21 pm tim d said:

    I think there is some truth in what you say James, but i still think we are talking a Both/And situation. Long term economic and social impoverishment create a climate where this is more likely; but then yes, (as you say), people then choose to act this way or allowed themselves to be swayed by others.
    But… looking a bit deeper and picking up on something you refer to, the “it’s wrong if I get caught”, mentality. I think it’s worth noting such a mentality has been much on display in the last few years. Politicians fiddling expenses; papers tapping phones; and wealthy people finding new and ingenious ways to side step tax. Then there are cuts which hit poorer people harder than anyone else. i could add ‘gentrification’; kids lacking no other role model than their peer groups etc etc

    NON of this justifies what happened of course! But i think it needs to be said that the climate we’ve allowed to develop between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, has not helped.
    all best. tim

  6. On August 11th, 2011 at 3:30 pm Grace said:

    I’m afriad I think it’s nearly irrelevant that we all inherently have a choice about how we behave. No, I didn’t start stealing when I was on the dole; that I’m afraid can’t be something I use to conclude that I made ‘better’ choices; apart from anything else it would make me believe I’m a better person. I’m simply a stat, in many, many ways, frankly: people get hard pushed, some react badly, some react courageously, admirably, and that is just the spectrum of human experience. Some then get brought to justice; some get off scott free; some never did anything bad and there aren’t repurcussions for them; some get blamed where they aren’t to blame. This is just life. Your background does form your choices but in unpredictable ways, as you say James; but that doesn’t to me give us anything conclusive to divide these events from clear macro trends, clear causalities. I’m afraid I keep coming back to a goverment where 7 people in the Cabinet are millionaires; where all the policies and cuts they make squeeze non-millionaires; and where repeated calls and challenges to them to squeeze the millionaires ever so slightly, let alone the investment banks, to share the financial burden just a little with the rest of the country, have met with limp excuses or flat refusals. I think riots were inevitable. Individual culpability is simply a fact for the courts to deal with in the aftermath. Why did you do this? I was fed up, your honour. I wanted a TV. That’s no excuse for lawbreaking, Miss Whoever. Doesn’t matter really though, in a society where this is happening all over the country. Facing societal causes are the only thing that’s going to help us stop it happening again and more frequently.

  7. On August 11th, 2011 at 4:31 pm Mike R said:

    I think it’s great that we are discussing what we think about these things. But what is the orthopraxis? Can moot offer hope? Or support? Or Lament? It’s a great discussion guys, but what are we doing to help? “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” 🙂

  8. On August 11th, 2011 at 8:08 pm Tony Cook said:

    Ian, two questions: What can we as the body of Christ do in situations such as these to bring restoration? And two, what should other Christians around the world, such as in America, learn from the London riots?

  9. On August 11th, 2011 at 10:44 pm ianmobsby said:

    The main response I think is to be even-handed, of non-dualistic action as Mike has said – it is contemplative action where Christians are called to be the people of peace. So for example my flat mate Tim, has gone down to encourage the staff of Starbucks to rebuild their cafe who have set up a campaign to raise money to help the fancy dress shop to get restocked after the fire which gave money to charity. But at the same time it is about challenging local and national government about unjust policies and the inequalities of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Christians should be seeking for a more equal society in a form of community that does not sell out to the bondage and immorality of the market. Protest is important. But at the same time, the need for boundaries – many of the businesses that were torched were owned by sole-proprieters weathering our economic climate – and this has pushed them and their dependents over the edge. This needs justice also.

    What can other Christians do? Please pray for us and our politicians that they do not over react out of anger and take away civil liberties. But at the same time start to think about causes like the mass youth unemployment in this country that created the conditions for riot.

    What can America learn – well sorry – you need to recognise that you are in one of the most unjust countries in the world where the poor are really oppressed. Justice and social inclusion is a greater issue in the USA in my experience than the UK. Our particular problems are the cuts which will start to kick in soon which overly affect the poor and under impact the rich.

  10. On August 11th, 2011 at 10:46 pm Richard said:

    I was chilled to the bone to find myself agreeing with the “Daily Mail” on some of this. The simple morality of “it’s wrong”, applied to the looting (as well bankers, expense fiddling politicians, phone tapping journalists etc.) is a powerful a simple message. Speaking about social injustice and the underlying causes can be interpreted by people as an excuse for doing wrong. Never being to blame is one of the easiest lies we can tell ourselves and one the Christian message tries hardest to prevent.

    I’m tempted by a perverse contradiction. To preach simple messages of choice and rights and wrongs, while privately knowing the underlying ills and personal problems that lead to much of the problem. And to seek to come close to people on a personal basis and give them the support that undermines the simple morality that I might preach, and to try to heal the societal ills that I see on a broader political basis.

  11. On August 12th, 2011 at 7:55 am Mike R said:

    If anyone’s free today, there’s a shop called “Siva” in Hackney that needs general labouring help clearing out so they can rebuild things. Follow @riot_rebuild on Twitter for more details.