I wrote my undergraduate thesis about citizenship theory. My major was Ethics, Politics, & Economics, and citizenship theory had something to do with all three fields. The question of who is “in” and who is “out” is profoundly ethical. The political question of who should get a say in how resources are distributed is only answered by those who are “in.” The economic issues associated with migration and social welfare are vast and complex.
The idea for this topic came to me the way all good research questions do: a social science study emerges out of what you see around you, every day. When it was time for me to come up with a thesis topic, I was living in southern France, which was a region embroiled in controversy over immigration.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the current French conservative politician Marine Le Pen, had just been elected to public office on an anti-immigration platform. The city where I lived, Montpellier, had a high concentration of immigrants from northern African former French colonies. Some of those immigrants had lived in France for generations, and some had fought for France in wars, but none were citizens, nor did they have pathways to citizenship. This anomaly led me to the bigger question, What makes a citizen a citizen?
This experience of 25 years ago prepared me in some ways for the anti-immigrant nation in which I live today, but the most important lesson I learned was not about immigration but about human nature. Why do some people hate immigrants they don’t know, with no meaningful understanding of the ethical, political, and economic issues associated with migration? My thesis taught me more than I ever wanted to know about scapegoating.
In fact, liberal French political commentators were then way ahead of where American commentators are today in that they employed a shared framework for anti-immigrant sentiments: they referred to immigrants as scapegoats, or “les boucs émissaires.” The French philosopher René Girard had written a widely read book by that title, and it provided a common language for those concerned about protecting immigrants from ill-placed hatred.
Those who blindly despise immigrants have been persuaded that those immigrants are to blame for their problems. They mentally send those objects of hatred out (as emissaries, émissaires) to be put to symbolic death, like goats (boucs) to the slaughter. Nothing is achieved by scapegoating except for a momentary emotional release more likely to fuel more anger than to relieve it.
Scapegoating has been on my mind during this pandemic as I’ve watched those who are angry desperately seek someone to blame, and as I’ve noticed my own scapegoating impulses. Stressed and anxious, we sense a need to find fault somewhere, in someone, in order to regain an illusion of control. The very idea that a virus is really no one’s fault is too much for us, so we find different bones on which to chew.
We criticize — sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly — the choices that leaders made and are making in the face of the public health emergency. We ignore the health concerns of those we’d already held in disdain, like prisoners and immigrants in detention centers, thinking “those people” less worthy of our worry. We (… okay, I) fantasize about how none of this would have happened if a different person had been elected President, or if our previous President were still in office. My brain finds a way to lay blame in order to justify free-floating feelings of anger. It’s my job to become conscious of that dangerous, unconscious shortcut.
“Scapegoating” frames anti-immigrant vitriol. It also helps us to understand what it is we tend to do to other people in our minds when our world is stressed by a disease. To find consciousness of our mental patterns, we must take one step further, not just labeling as scapegoating the all-too-human impulse that the pandemic brings out of us, but to label the pandemic itself. I propose we go with the term “disaster” — from the Greek dis-aster, wrong stars — as our shared definition of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ancient Greek belief that stars controlled fate made possible acceptance that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. The term “natural disaster” is thus internally redundant; there’s no other kind of disaster, because fate is in the stars. Sometimes storms wash away cities, and sometimes earthquakes knock them down. Sometimes a bat and a civet cat that each have a cold get too close to one another, and their viruses meet up and make a new virus baby. Better to blame the stars than the country where the bat and pig met each other, or the people whose ancestors were born in that country.
As a Christian, I believe that God’s ways are not my ways, and that I won’t understand God fully in this lifetime. Why is it, then, that I have so much trouble accepting fate? In some ways, that difficulty might be good for us, as we must control what we can in order to make our world that which God imagines it can be. In other ways, our difficulty accepting that of which we can’t make sense can cause us — not just xenophobic racists, but all of us — to lay blame where it doesn’t belong.
I therefore propose that we start referring to the novel coronavirus pandemic as a disaster now in order that we might train our brains. Then, when someone tries to trick us into the blame game, we can put our temptations into perspective. We’ll remember that no one caused the disaster itself, although we can formulate opinions about better and worse ways to respond to it. We won’t be persuaded to place our anxieties on one person or group, and then seek to relieve that anxiety through ritual sacrifice.
The only cure for scapegoating is relationship-building that fosters love. But it’s possible to prevent scapegoating in the first place by figuring out how to place blame in ways that are rational and fair, which often means accepting that some turns of events are nobody’s fault. The word “disaster” might help us remember, even when we’re at our angriest, that we haven’t lost control; we never had control in the first place.