Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating

Carl G. Jung writes a lot about the nature of “shadow projection” in his writings. Individuals will often project their shadow unto someone else they know well. Just look at any divorce trial, the tendency is to project blame unto the Other, rather than taking personal responsibility for the death of a marriage.

I am reminded of the old story where a marriage therapist was counseling a young couple that were having difficulties in their marriage. The husband says, “She is to blame for everything wrong in our marriage!” The therapist asks the husband, “Do you really believe that SHE is really to blame for EVERYTHING?”  The husband pauses, “Well, not really; her mother is to blame for at least 50% of our problems!”

What happens on the individual level occurs with the collective shadow as well. Typically, it is an ethnic or religious group that is blamed for the woes of society. Men and women often blame the opposite sex for the current state of disarray that we mentioned earlier. It becomes much more dangerous when entire populations become blamed or persecuted because of existing social ills that exist in a society.

Whenever one feels oneself or one’s group superior to another one is engaged in shadow projection. This “other” thus becomes the “scapegoat” to carry away the “sins of the Other.” But do the sins really go away once the scapegoat is destroyed? Not really. The social wrongs or inequities simply go unconscious where they breed more hatred and shadow material. It sets up a vicious cycle. Shadow projection is nothing new to the human race; it’s been practiced in rituals throughout ancient history.

One of my favorite early 20th century anthropologists, Sir James Frazer, shows how the ancient Greeks and Romans utilized the scapegoat. The ancient Romans on March 14th, would send a man clad in skins through the streets of Rome, beating him with long white rods until they drove him out of the city. The Romans called him Mamurius Veturius “the old Mars” since he represented the Mars of the previous year, and he had to be driven out to make room for the new Mars. This practice reflects a time when Mars was not a god of war, but a god of vegetation.

The ancient Greeks frequently used a human victim as their scapegoat as a means of expunging plague or poverty from their midst. Plutarch for example, describes a custom in his community which as the town magistrate would get together at City Hall, along with the other citizens of the town. They would then personally beat a slave with rods of agnus castus and say the words “Out with hunger, and in with wealth and health.” (I wonder if they wished each other a hearty “Mazel Tov” afterwards).

In biblical times, the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual was believed to literally, “carry away” the sins of the people once the scapegoat was destroyed. Nowadays, we do not slaughter goats anymore to expunge our sins, instead, we single out individuals or groups to carry out our projections. In politics, we see this all the time. Whenever a Republican/Democrat gets caught having an affair, or does something unethical, the opposite party will project the shadow unto the rest of the political party that the politician represents.

As Jews, we, perhaps better than most peoples, understand what it is like to be a scapegoat in society. Many Christians cannot bear to accept the fact that  Jesus was a Jew and that there are distinctively Jewish aspects of their faith; by the same token many Jews find it equally impossible to imagine Jesus–not as a Messiah, or as a “Son of God,” but as someone who lived and died as a pious Jew we can admire.

In terms of Jungian psychology, the Christian attempt to convert or missionize the Jew is a unconscious attempt to deny the unowned aspect of its Jewish identity–its “shadow self.” Paradoxically, just as the Jew is a shadow of the Christian, so too is the Christian a shadow of the Jew. This explanation might explain why there has been friction between the two faith communities.

In summary, whether it is with individuals or with society as a whole, nobody can afford the illusion of being “self-righteous,” because no individual or society is without personal short-comings and evil. Shadow projection is often very dangerous. It pays for us to be conscious of where our alleged self-righteousness is really coming from. Perhaps we are not as “pious,”  as we would like others to believe. Perhaps our “enemy” may not be as sinister as we would like him to be either.

Fortunately, there are more Christians wishing to take ownership of their faith’s Jewish roots, and more Jews are now starting to appreciate the life of Jesus as a man who ought to be considered as an ancient  “Sage of Israel.” With more self-knowledge, we will be able to control our shadow projections.

3 thoughts on “Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating

  1. admin says:


    Posted by Yochanan Lavie on 24.02.10 at 1:13 am edit

    From TS Eliot, “The Hollow Men” :

    Here we go round the prickly pear [sabra!]
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
    Life is very long

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

  2. Harry says:

    People have practiced scapegoating, collectively, as a society; and in all group formations; and at the individual interpersonal level; they always have, they always will, and it is an evil practice which, if it is done unconsciously, is simply being done automatically, out of habit, and out of character. What people do unconsciously, they do out of ingrained habit; it does not make them innocent, but reveals them for who they are.

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