Interview related to consultation and presentations in Brazil in which the subject was scapegoating and collective consciousness.
Interviewer: You've come to Brazil to talk about the psychology of the scapegoat including two lectures entitled “Scapegoats and Secrets” and “Leaders and Scapegoats” and a workshop with Dr. Pilar Montero entitled “Awakening Collective Consciousness in Groups.” Can you begin this interview by telling our readers how you got interested in the subject and why you think we should join you in that interest?
A.C.: As a child I remember being sensitive to the ways societies create victims so my interest must have started in my own family; that's not surprising, the scapegoat dynamic is imbedded in every family to a greater or lesser degree. My concerns about my own position were not major: important enough to mattered but not so noxious that they stopped me from reflecting and strategizing. I had a brilliant older brother. The family myth was that I had social skills but that he could think. It was better to think. It had nothing to do with my intelligence, just that in my family someone had to be smarter and someone dumber. It was hard to combat that family process. An important part of me continued to think I was stupid even when I and the evidence spoke to the opposite.
I went to Harvard college where there was lot of prejudice against Jews who were all considered to be smart but obnoxious and uppity. So now I was made to feel smart but not socially adept! Again I had to fight to change that image. These stereotyping processes seemed to have little to do with who I really was. My family and then my peer group were doing something to me for reasons I could not fathom. I remember watching Fidel Castro talking on the Harvard campus after leading his successful revolution. He was invited by the President of the United States and the Dean of Harvard. So that day he was a hero; very soon after he was a villain. All these examples, and of course powerful and person images from the Holocaust are part of a scapegoating process in which a person or a group, innocents, are made to suffer for crimes they didn't commit. These experiences became more and more important to me and influenced my becoming a psychiatrist and later developing an intense interest in group behavior. Thirty five years later, the origins of scapegoating still feels mysterious to me. So I continue to study the phenomena and try to stimulate others to do so as well.
Interviewer: You call scapegoats innocents. Are you saying that those who are scapegoats do not play some role in bringing that fate upon themselves?
A.C.: That gets right to the heart of the issue of scapegoating. The dictionary definition of a scapegoat is “one who is made to take the blame for others or suffer in their place.” The behavior of the scapegoated one is quite beside the point. Scapegoating is a process that is actually quite natural to a group; it is the group's way of dealing with its unwanted parts, its shadow parts. It is as if scapegoating is the group’s excretory mechanism. When we study groups which are actively scapegoating, it seems as if the group has learned how to scan its membership for someone to fill that role. It picks elements within it that are easy “marks” for such a process, who, we might say, have a valence or predilection for victimization. For example a child is often a scapegoat, chosen by a family in trouble precisely because they are defenseless. Similarly a politically or socially compromised group such as the poor, the homeless or an easily victimized minority is chosen by society as its scapegoat because they are weak and can’t or won’t fight back.
Interviewer: You are talking about the group as if it has a mind of its own, as if even the individual who scapegoat others are innocent victims of a larger group scapegoating process.
A.C.: I do believe that the group has a mind. I would say that group has a consciousness which continually acts on its members, on the individuals and the subgroups that are part of a group. We can feel this consciousness and we can also learn how to reflect on this consciousness much as we can learn to reflect on our own individual consciousness. That is what Dr. Montero and I will be doing in the workshop we call “Awakening Collective Consciousness in Groups.” In this workshop we consult to the group as a whole rather than to individual group members. Our contract is with the group; our goal is to create a reflective group consciousness. Of course we also hope that the individuals attending the workshop will learn how to develop a similar reflective function in other groups to which they belong. This is very different contract and goal than group therapies or focus groups. Teaching members to reflect on their own group consciousness, to awaken their appreciation of group processes, inevitably brings them to the problem of scapegoating because scapegoating is a central theme in most group life. The more undeveloped, that is unreflective, the group, the more scapegoating predominates.
This leads me to answer your second question in a simple way at least by agreeing that individuals who scapegoat others are also victims of the group's scapegoating process. Of course some individuals find this role more appealing than others just as some individuals gratefully fall into the role of victim. Scapegoaters and scapegoats alike must learn ways to resist and control these processes and one powerful way to do this is to gain more knowledge about a group's consciousness. The best way to alter a scapegoating process in a group or society is to develop more reflective consciousness about that process.
Interviewer: Why don't more groups do that more? Is there a way that scapegoating serves the group so that it resists learning to reflect on its own behavior?
A.C.: Of course. Besides the taking sins of others on their shoulders, quite a gain after all for those who have sinned as every religious Christian knows, scapegoats and the process of scapegoating changes the group's structure and composition. It creates more homogeneity, decreases diversity, gets rid of people who make trouble. I think scapegoating does help groups be more efficient especially in simple tasks. It helps people in groups feel more comfortable. But, and this is a large but, scapegoating also limits group creativity by getting rid of the troublemakers and the nonconformists, the artists and the geniuses. Societies which scapegoat too well find they have ejected the most interesting and sometimes most valuable parts of themselves. The Nazi regime in Germany managed to get rid the Jewish scientists who built the atomic bomb for America. They also got rid of many of the gays and other liminal groups who so often contributes to the arts and sciences. In a sense they scapegoated, exiled, incarcerated or killed just those people who made German society so vital. So in the long run and from a purely functional point of view, scapegoating stifles groups; to use the measuring stick of the 1990's it is bad for the bottom line. And this is all not considering the moral consequences of scapegoating—which is major as well.
Interviewer: If all that is true, then what does limit groups from learning—through reflection or any other ways—how not to scapegoat?
A.C.: That to me is one of the more important psychological questions for the next century. We desperately need an answer because scapegoats are often hurt so badly that they feel no moral compunction about getting even. In the past the scapegoaters won out and kept on winning. But doomsday weaponry, and what I call the archetype of death without rebirth, has modified that scenario. Eventually a scapegoat nation will decide to drop a nuclear bomb or other weapon of mass destruction on its tormentors even if the consequence are eternally fatal for all—death without rebirth. Psychologist have spent a great deal of effort learning how to make individuals more conscious. Much of our psychology and psychotherapy as well as our philosophy and even our economics have emphasized individual process. But man is very much a group animal and altering individual consciousness has made little difference in the tragedies in our century many of which are scapegoating tragedies. Almost all war, after all, starts with one group scapegoating another rather than deal with its own conflicts and guilts.
But to return more directly to your question, the main reason why groups don't reflect more, is because the individuals who make them up are afraid of the implications of that reflection. We all have secrets and we are afraid that we would have to give up some of these secrets if we were to reflect honestly about our group's behavior.
Interviewer: I'm not sure I follow you. How do secrets support scapegoating?
A.C.: It is very easy to see this in a family. For example clinically we often find that the abuse of a child, a girl sexually abused by her father for example, is done with full or partial knowledge of the mother or brother or sister. The child is a scapegoat of the family, not just the father. But why? Why doesn't a member of the family come out and talk to what is happening? Why doesn't the family develop a reflective consciousness and then deal with its own process. The reason is because the family secret is perceived as dangerous to the stability of the family. Telling the secret would lead to more secrets and more lies and more abuse. For example the mother may be afraid to deal with sexual secrets—most commonly the lack of sexuality—and be willing to sacrifice the child rather than risk humiliation and divorce. The family may have to deal with the secret of the fathers or mothers alcoholism. The family may have to deal with the secrecy of their dependence on the father as wage earner, dependence so great that the abuse is tolerated. A brother or sister or parents may have to deal openly with the secret humiliation of their sexual abuse or abusiveness. Opening up any or all of those secrets are viewed, as more dangerous than scapegoating a child, entirely innocent, even if seductive I might add.
Interviewer: And that same fear of secrets coming out extends to society?
A.C.: Yes, in a group or society and even more deadly secrets abound. Corruption, abuse, bribery, sexual secrets, all are very important to one or another individual or subgroup and yet the reflective process will require the exposure of some of these secrets in order to see and then stop the scapegoating process. The scapegoating process is a diversion for group lies; it protects each of its members from their own guilty actions and thoughts. The group uses the weakest elements, as the family uses the most helpless member, to bear the blame for others, to suffer in their place. It is an amazing human truth the we are often more willing to start a war than risk not keeping our secrets safe and sound.
Interviewer: Your mention of secrets makes me think of the impeachment of your president Bill Clinton. Would you consider him a scapegoat to your political process?
A.C.: I'm glad you asked that since I hope to spend some time on the impeachment in my talks. Scapegoating the leader is a very special case of the scapegoating process, and a common scapegoating process I should add. Leaders are frequent victims. It goes with the role. Those of you who know Mary Renault’s wonderful book The King Must Die or Frazer's The Golden Bough will recognize the general myth. In societies where the leader is elected in a relatively free, and where that elected leader is effective in developing policies and laws which undermine the views of the minority and threaten their values there is no easy way for the minority to protect itself or at least that is the way it may feel. Scapegoating the leader may be a far easier strategy for removing or at least weakening the leader than working within the democratic process. I think that is the case in my country. Clinton was twice elected by a considerable majority and he was popular and competent enough to put the people and the policies of the majority into play. But these policies and people were an anathema to a small but powerful minority of the country. At stake was not just money and power but morality and venerable traditions. Clinton is called the “black” president because he put Afro-Americans into leadership positions. He was mildly sympathetic to the rights of homosexuality. He was himself a child of a single parent, a less than privileged status. He served a very different master than the older establishment and the older morality.
Interviewer: But wasn't Clinton's own behavior responsible for the impeachment?
A.C.: Clinton's own sexual ethics and behavior were certainly questionable but those are not the sins for which he is being punished. Clinton is a scapegoat because he became the symbol of one side of a profound civil war in my country. He was being scapegoated because he championed ones side exactly what the electorate wanted him to do. He was a scapegoat for the same issue in many other countries as well because as a world leader he stood for an entire new paradigm powerfully opposed by fundamentalists all over the world. To attribute his being burned at the stake because of his sexual conduct or even his apparent perjury is like believing that Jesus being crucified to save Barrabas.
Interviewer: But don't leaders always become symbols in this way? Aren't all leaders at high risk for becoming scapegoats?
A.C.: Yes, especially leaders who represent the force of change. And scapegoating the leader often has a very different scenario than the usual victims in the scapegoating process. The weak and young and poor have no defense. They are chosen by the group and society for that reason. But leaders who are scapegoated still have power to combat the scapegoating process. Clinton bombing of Iraq the night before the impeachment vote was an example of that power. At the time of this interview the outcome of the senate trial is unsure. But Clinton, bowed and humiliated, is far from broken. Most victims of a scapegoating process would be on the cross by now. And of course this whole sordid affair began because one individual told her secret; the other, Clinton, was afraid to tell.
Interviewer: What about therapy? Does therapy have a role in alleviating the scapegoating process or helping their victims.
A.C.: I am a psychiatrist a psychoanalyst and most of all a physician and healer. I have no doubt that working with individuals therapy and analysis helps alleviate and support the parts of us that have been scapegoated in our lives. Individuals who continue to grow as adults inevitably face scapegoating process in their lives. Adult development requires speaking out against the collective norms and asserting ones own values in their place. Groups afraid to grow themselves always respond with scapegoating behavior.
But what therapy and analysis does not do in my experience is help individuals find the courage to work within the group to create a reflective consciousness to stop the scapegoating. Therapy is strangely silent in supporting service to the community and to the collective; there is often a polarity created between individual and collective growth, between service to oneself and service to others. Those of us who are interested in spiritual disciplines will know that service to oneself requires service to others; there is no real development without it. So for example groups of therapists such as analytic institutes, are notorious for their scapegoating process and rarely show much group consciousness. This is something we must all work in all our group; as long as there is scapegoating, we just might be the goat. I view my interest in scapegoating as a most important service as a healer.
Interviewer: Thank you very much Dr. Colman.
Copyright © Arthur C. Colman