Manufacturing Scapegoats: Moral Disengagement in History

The images below come from a poster I made for one of my classes at uni where I had to demonstrate a learning theory by using it to teach a lesson. The lesson I taught was on the way that the mechanics of moral disengagement as studied by social psychologists can arguably be used to draw parallels between different periods of history. This was particularly true I aruged where the powerful have sought to establish pretexts for engaging in essentially criminal activity by manufacturing a crisis based on a perceived threat to the status quo. They then used this pretext to manipulate public opinion into supporting the criminal activity in the name of defending it against the threat and overcoming the crisis while making scapegoats out of anyone who tries to hold them to account for the consequences of their actions. Some might call this conspiracy theory nonsense but I think if you look at the facts and look at what people like Albert Bandura have to say you’ll see that the reasoning is reasonably sound and based on sound empirical evidence.

To try to illustrate what I’m talking about here, Arthur Miller wrote ‘The Crucible’ in the 1950s as a way of drawing parallels between the seventeenth century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts and Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witchhunts of the 1950s, particularly where the primary actors in both the witch trials and the anti-communist crusade sought to defend both themselves and/or the interests they represented from being held to account by making scapegoats out of those whom they had either wronged or sought to wrong; in the latter case they were of course persecuting their victims pre-emptively, so in a sense maybe you could argue that pre-emption is ultimately just something we carry on with in anticipation of what we know we deserve.

In creating the myth of an immanent threat to their known worlds they spread fear and terror which triggered the survival mechanism in the flight or flight part of the brain that seems to compel us to look for strong leaders to latch onto, distracted attention away from what they were carrying on with themselves and allowed them to position themselves as victims, so that they were able to scapegoat anyone who tried to hold them to account for the consequences of their actions by blurring the line between being criticised and being attacked (which is something that authoritarian ideologues in general usually seem to be experts at confusing, though it also seems to be a pretty common defense mechanism otherwise). I don’t think I really need to bother going into a great deal of detail about the next time that this phenomenon reappeared, but suffice it to say that the elements common to the Salem Witch Hunts, the Red Scare of the 1950s and the Terror Scare of 2001 (the so-called ‘War on Terror’) would appear to be indicative at least to some extent of a pattern.

Consider also the following quote from a book on corporate propaganda by an Australian academic, Alex Carey, which was published 6 years before 9/11, where he reflected on recurring patterns of political reaction in the United States with particular emphasis on the events described above.

“(1) A threat (real or imagined) from outside the United States achieves a dramatic impact on popular consciousness; (2) this effect occurs at a time when liberal reforms and popular hostility to the large corporations and the power they exercise are perceived by conservative interests as a profound threat from inside the U.S. social and political system. Finally, (3) the two perceived threats merge, to the discredit of the internal reforms and of any political party, persons or policies associated with them.” (Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Sydney; UNSW Press, 1995, P. 37).

So hopefully you can see where I’m going with all this. If you look through history examples abound, which can be depressing to say the least but the upside I guess is that putting these kinds of thing into some semblance of order might hopefully help us to anticipate and navigate them in the future, knowledge being power and what not.

But first.. Moral Disengagement – What is it?

Moral disengagement is an umbrella term in social psychology for the processes we employ to rationalise any harm that we might do to others while maintaining a positive image of ourselves as moral agents.

There are four main categories: reconstructing immoral conduct, displacing or diffusing responsibility, misrepresenting injurious consequences, and dehumanising the victim. Some of these processes can include:

  1.  “Moral” justification–which we prefer to call “spurious moral justification” – the process by which individuals rationalise harm done to others in ways that make it appear morally justifiable (e.g., if I didn’t do this, someone else would, and it’s better if I’d do it because my motives are not reprehensible, ‘playing the victim’);
  2.  Euphemistic labeling – use of morally neutral language to make reprehensible conduct seem less harmful or even benign (e.g., collateral damage is inevitable in such situations);
  3.  Advantageous comparison – unethical behaviour is compared with even more harmful conduct, thus making the original behaviour appear acceptable (e.g., what I did was nothing compared to the other things that had been done recently);
  4.  Displacement of responsibility – viewing one’s behaviour as being a direct result of authoritative dictates (e.g., I was only following orders);
  5.  Diffusion of responsibility – no one group member feels personally responsible for the collective group destructive behaviour (e.g., I don’t feel particularly badly about this, because we all had a part in doing it);
  6.  Disregard or distortion of consequences – downplaying the probable results of unethical behaviour (e.g., taking this little bit of money doesn’t affect anything in a huge company like this);
  7.  Dehumanising or demonising the other – us-versus-them thinking based on convenient stereotypes (e.g., they live like animals, therefore they deserve to be treated like animals); and
  8.  Attribution of blame – exonerates the self by placing fault with the target of the harmful behaviour (e.g., terrorists deserve to be tortured because they have brought such outcomes upon themselves).[1]

[1] James Detert, Linda Klebe Trevino & Vicki Sweitzer, Moral Disengagement in Ethical Decision Making: A Study of Antecedents and Outcomes, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008, Vol. 93, No. 2, 374–391.

And now, without further ado..

(Click on images to view full size)









A PDF of this poster is available at

If you’re interested in investigating any of this here are a few links to start you off:

Moral disengagement:
The Crucible:
‪The political uses of fear – Edward Bernays and United Fruit (this is my YouTube channel):‬
What a Terrorist Incident in Ancient Rome Can Teach Us – Pirates of the Mediterranean:

..and last but not least: does this sound famiiar?

See also: Debney, B. (2010). The domestic peril: the radical alien and the rise of corporate Americanism, 1912-1919. Masters Research thesis , Arts – School of Historical Studies, The University of Melbourne.

Historical Underbelly page on Facebook:

The terrorists – I mean, the communists – I mean, the witches – are coming to destroy our way of life, and the only way we can all be saved is if no one asks any questions and everyone shuts up and does what they’re f&*^#ing well told. Anyone who questions this logic is of a subhuman species that was crapped into existence by lucifer himself.


One comment on “Manufacturing Scapegoats: Moral Disengagement in History

  1. […] Stanford University Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology Albert Bandura’s theory of moral disengagement so neatly applies to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers it’s almost as if Howard and his heirs misread the theory as an instruction manual. The theory describes the many ways moral codes can be disabled to avoid the negative feelings like shame and guilt normally associated with behaving immorally. It explains the capacity for human beings to be generally terrible in areas ranging from aggression in children, to approval of violence towards animals, to bullying, cheating and corruption, right up to medieval crusades and witch-hunts, as well as modern genocides. […]

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