Errors & Omissions: If you're looking for a scapegoat, make sure you are in the right place


In a time when nobody is ever held personally responsible for anything, and all we have to do after any disaster is "make sure that the lessons are learnt", the word "scapegoat" has undergone a change.

This week everybody, including this newspaper, has been calling the de-knighted Fred Goodwin a scapegoat. He has been singled out for punishment, the argument goes, when there are many others as guilty as he. He has thus been "scapegoated".

No such thing. We have forgotten what a scapegoat is. The story comes from the Bible. The scapegoat was an animal on whom the sins of the people were symbolically laid; it was driven out into the wilderness to die, cleansing the people of sin. A scapegoat, then, is an innocent person who is punished for the sins of others. Fred Goodwin, on the other hand, has been punished for his own sins, which we all know about. If his punishment is unfair, it is not because he is innocent, like the scapegoat, but because others, equally guilty, have been let off.

If you want a traditional story to illustrate the fate of Mr Goodwin, you could say that, like Admiral Byng in 1757, he was taken out and shot "pour encourager les autres".

Many believe that was an injustice, but Byng, like Goodwin and unlike the scapegoat, had been found guilty of doing something wrong. The analogy is surprisingly close. Byng, like Goodwin, was guilty not of anything we should call a crime, but of disastrous incompetence in "failing to do his utmost" to defeat a French squadron off Minorca. At the time it was suspected that, as some say of Goodwin, he was singled out to deflect blame from others.

If any present-day banker has been treated like a scapegoat it is Stephen Hester, who was guilty of nothing but being entitled under his contract to what most people thought was an absurd amount of money.

Trying too hard: "It is a stereotype that has spawned countless jokes and become a truth universally acknowledged by men across the land – that women are the least proficient gender when it comes to parking a car."

That is the opening paragraph of a news story published on Monday. It went on to report experimental findings that women are actually better than men at parking.

Almost everything has gone wrong here. How can a stereotype (a plate of cast type-metal used in old-fashioned printing) spawn anything? There are only two genders, so one is the less, not least, proficient. What does "across the land" add, except a weird touch of medieval gadzookery? And finally, there is the dreaded "when it comes to", one of the two infallible markers of a sentence that needs radical surgery (the other is "the fact that").

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