AIG scapegoats

Collective culpability
A lot of outrage, including threats of physical violence, has been directed at executives of the American International Group and other financial-services firms. The executives are perceived as having triggered the world wide economic crisis by their reliance on subprime mortgage–backed securities and on credit default swaps (something few people understand even after hearing them explained). And they are seen as having escaped the crisis unscathed—and in some cases with millions of dollars in bonuses.

The depth of the outrage, and the violence of the expressions, suggests that there is something to anthropologist René Girard’s theory of scapegoating. Girard argues that societies attain cohesion by periodically identifying scapegoats—socially approved targets of violence. At least for a time, conflicts in society are suppressed as people’s rage is directed at the designated scapegoat.


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