The brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, the Food Network star accused of tolerating a racist atmosphere  in the kitchen of one of her restaurants, has sent my scapegoat antennae vibrating. Folks are lining up on opposite sides of the issue, to either defend or condemn this Queen of a Southern cooking financial empire. Dropped by the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, and now Walmart , and with a Facebook page populated by supporters, Paula Deen’s accusers and defenders are facing off like battalions on a battlefield. Extreme polarization like this is a symptom that scapegoating is underway, so I suggest everyone take a deep breath and back away from the deep fat fryer while I offer a few scapegoating observations.
The Verdict is Already In
Polarization is not about a search for truth. Polarization indicates that each side believes it is in possession of the truth and is running on overdrive, panting with the effort of making their accusation stick. “Paula Deen is a racist!” shout her accusers. “Why do you hate Southerners?” counter her defenders. No matter which side you are on, you are steadfastly, undeniably certain that you are in the possession of the truth and on the side of good.
Outrage is Perceived to be a Moral Necessity
Polarization is almost always accompanied by outrage. Under these conditions, being outraged by another’s behavior is a clear indication of your moral pedigree. Only someone so dedicated to truth and justice would feel the depth of outrage you feel at the morally reprehensible behavior of your opponents. Of course, both sides feel outraged so we find the opponents locked in mortal combat: the only satisfactory outcome is the total defeat of your opponent. Good must conquer evil, and you will not rest until you have fulfilled your moral obligation.
Guilty or Not, the Accused is a Scapegoat
Polarization accompanied by outrage is a clear indication that the accused is functioning as a scapegoat for both sides. Two truths are being concealed here; the first one we already indicated. Determining the truth of whether Paula Deen is actually a racist is not even on the table. Pre-deciding the truth about Paula was a pre-requisite for the combat. But the second truth being concealed has to do with the polarized opposites. By insisting on their own predetermined goodness, neither side needs to ask themselves whether they are behaving badly. No self-examination required here because, as with Paula, determining the truth about our own behavior is not even on the table. We are pre-judged by our own righteous indignation as steadfastly, undeniably good.
Scapegoat du Jour
That’s the function of a scapegoat: to establish our identity as good people over and against some evil other. With the bad guys clearly determined, the scapegoaters give themselves a free pass. They conveniently avoid having to answer uncomfortable questions such as: Have I ever used a racial slur or laughed at a racial joke? Do I stereotype racial or cultural groups? Am I prejudiced in ways that I am currently blind to? In what ways do I benefit from the systemic racism in America today? The Paula Deen scandal is currently providing just such an avoidance mechanism for the polarized, outraged critics and fans who will be sorry to see the frenzy die down. But it will. Paula’s predicament will fade from the scene and she will re-emerge months or years from now reborn and rehabilitated. Most of us will hardly remember all the fuss because we will have already moved on to the next juicy scandal, renewing our sense of ourselves as good while avoiding a fresh set of uncomfortable questions with the next scapegoat du jour.
Image: Paula Deen at Bristol Motor Speedway, photo by Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway,  Flickr.com