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 to the scapegoat who becomes the main focus. The scapegoat’s predicament as well as the original issues are hidden.
I have seen scapegoating in families where there is a difficult and unspoken issue such as 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 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.
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 might 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 the original accusations and to add to them. There seems to be no way out.
Since people who encourage scapegoating are generally in positions of authority they can influence the opinions and attitudes of group members. For example, resilience might be promoted as a necessary quality to practice in that group’s profession. Fearing that they will be considered unfit to practice group members suggest that the scapegoat is not sufficiently robust. Now the scapegoat bears the brunt of the group’s anxiety and feels compelled to hide their considerable distress so that it is not used against them, they may also feel unable to ask for outside help.
Scapegoating is a form of bullying and can include criticising a person’s character and competency, shaming, mocking, excluding and ostracising. This wears away at one’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.
A person who is being scapegoated 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 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 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 the scapegoat is unable to continue in the 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 care about your well-being is essential. People who know you well can be reassuring, they can remind you of your strengths, and help you to replenish self-esteem, confidence and personal power.
Counselling can provide time and space for exploring the experience in depth. Often being able to speak openly to an empathic, accepting and supportive therapist is healing in itself. Looking at personal boundaries and how they might be implemented may increase self-esteem and confidence, possibly affording some protection against further bullying and scapegoating.