Updated: Jun 28, 2020
During my first term at Secondary School I noticed that one boy was getting into more trouble than anyone else. I saw him protest to the teachers when the other boys blamed him for various incidents. Sometimes he became angry and his behaviour was used to increase the case against him. Whenever there was a problem in class this boy would be implicated, sometimes by teachers and sometimes by pupils.
A scapegoat is forced to shoulder the blame. Attention is drawn away from underlying causes, tensions and conflicts which become less visible. Instead the scapegoat’s professed shortcomings are highlighted. Any disquiet, anxiety, fear, anger, and so on that people are experiencing due to the initial situation is attributed to the scapegoat. The focus is upon their alleged guilt, whilst the reality of their predicament is largely unseen. Thus, both the scapegoat’s painful position and the original issues are masked.
This might happen in a family where there is a delicate, unspoken issue, for example the husband’s long-term unfaithfulness to his wife. One person, perhaps their teenaged daughter experiences the uncomfortable atmosphere. She finds the silence intolerable and eventually she speaks out.
Both parents are disturbed, they start picking on their daughter for small things, she is told off and criticised, bearing the brunt of their underlying anger towards each other. The teenager reacts with her own anger, she becomes uncooperative and is viewed as the family problem. The ‘problematic’ teenager is visible, whilst the husband’s unfaithfulness and what might lie behind his behaviour has dropped out of sight.
Scapegoating tends to be initiated by one or more people with authority. This might be a person with status in a peer group, parents, teachers, tutors, bosses, and community leaders. Amongst those who witness scapegoating and those who are drawn into it there may be some recognition of what is happening. There is generally a great deal of fear. Some people withdraw from the situation whilst others join against the scapegoat. It is rare and it takes great courage to stand beside a person who is being scapegoated within a group. Nobody wants to be the next target.
Imagine being unfairly accused of something and unable to convince others of your innocence. Anything that you try to say or do is used against you. The usual rules of justice and compassion no longer apply. Reasoning, arguing, shouting, fighting, panicking, having an anxiety attack and withdrawing are all twisted to prove and add to the original accusations.
Scapegoating is a form of bullying and can include criticising character and competency, shaming, mocking, excluding and ostracising. This wears away at a person’s confidence and self-esteem, undermining their sense of self. In this very vulnerable state it is extremely difficult to put protective boundaries in place.
Victims of scapegoating may come to believe some of the accusations and criticisms against them. Perhaps they feel that there is some shame in their predicament. Shame may prevent them from telling other people about their current situation and asking for help.
Escaping the trap
A person who is being scapegoated might think there is something that they can do or say to change attitudes against them. In my opinion this is unlikely since a scapegoat’s enforced role maintains and increases the power of those who already have status and authority. Others in the group tend to be obliging as they are afraid of becoming the next victim.
It seems to me that often there is only one way of changing the situation, and that is to leave. This might happen as a matter of course, for example the boy in my year group left at the end of his secondary school education. Sometimes perpetrators recognise that the situation has gone too far and that there may be some repercussions for themselves. A way out of this is to find, or to create reasons for ousting their scapegoat from the group.
Sometimes the abuse becomes too much to bear and a person is unable to continue in this situation. Bullying can result in psychological damage, suicidal feelings and the taking of one’s own life.
If possible, making the decision to leave oneself can be empowering. Sadly, this might mean giving-up something precious such as being part of a family unit, a job or an important course of study.
Speaking with trustworthy people who know you well can be illuminating. They can remind you of your strengths, and point out discrepancies in other people’s perceptions of your character and behaviour.
Counselling is an opportunity to explore your experience in depth. Going over the whole situation, perhaps several times, can bring fresh insights that reveal the reality of your experience, whether a single event or a long term situation.
Emma said... 12 January 2018 at 10:36
Thanks for this, Paula. Scapegoating can happen anywhere, as you suggest, and your article will hopefully help some people recognise scapegoating when they next come across it.
Paula Newman said... 13 January 2018
Hi Emma, I hope so too. Thank you very much for your comment.
Hazel Hill said... 22 March 2018
I like the example of scapegoating within a family! Good to reflect on when we get angry with our children, to ask ourselves, is it often our own anger within us!
Hi Hazel, thanks very much for your comments. I agree with you about reflecting upon the routes of our anger.