Psychodynamics of Scapegoating, Persecution, Bullying
Scapegoating in group psychotherapy is generally seen to be an example of projective identification. The seeking of a scapegoat in a group can be seen as a form of resistance, or defence against impulses, wishes or behaviour that needs to be repressed, denied, or in some way removed from consciousness as belonging to the self. The scapegoat may well elect himself for this role, for example, by exhibiting aggression in the group or by displaying a defence that other group members possess in perhaps a slightly different form. However, the scapegoat is always reacted to because he demonstrates traits that other group members reject.
The group-selected scapegoat may have been a scapegoat in his family of origin, and he may have displayed provocative behaviour that puts him in this position in relation to the other group members. His transference's towards other group members are those selected from his childhood experiences and others are seen as potential persecutors, or figures that might hurtfully neglect or ignore or humiliate in some way.
Although scapegoating, abuse and bullying can perhaps best be seen as an interaction, in which two or more people are engaged in a relationship in which both may share the underlying feeling of being victims in life and a long-term sense of persecution, the literature concerning the psychology and psycho-pathology of the perpetrator is also of interest. I will examine this evidence in this section.
The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it. Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. 1957.The link between ideas and action is rarely direct. There is almost always an intermediate step in which the idea is overcome. De Tocqueville points out that it is at times when passion starts to govern human affairs that ideas are most obviously translated into political action. The translation of ideas into action is usually in the hands of people least likely to follow rational motives. Hence, it is that action is often the nemesis of ideas, and sometimes of the men who formulate them. One of the marks of the truly vigorous society is the ability to dispense with passion as a midwife of action – the ability to pass directly from thought to action. Eric Hoffer.He who fights against monsters must beware lest he become one himself. And when your gaze penetrates deep into the abyss, the abyss can penetrate deep into you. Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil.Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty. Simone Weil. Gravity and Grace. 1947.
Research supports the view that the most dangerous people are those who have a strong desire to regard themselves as superior beings (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). According to these authors, narcissists are emotionally invested in establishing their superiority, but they are not convinced that they have achieved this superiority. High self-esteem involves thinking well of oneself but narcissism, on the other hand, involves a powerful wish to think well of oneself. They found that narcissists were exceptionally aggressive towards someone who had given them a bad evaluation. When they received praise, their level of aggression was not out of the ordinary. The authors conclude that narcissists mainly want to punish or defeat someone who has threatened their highly favourable views of themselves. People who are preoccupied with validating a grandiose self-image apparently find criticism highly upsetting and lash out against the source of it.
The perpetrators of abuse or victimisation tend to see the actions of others as attacks on themselves and numerous studies have found that, for example, bullies, wife-beaters, tyrants, and other violent people tend to think that other people are attacking or belittling them, even when others do not have the same interpretation of events. There seems to be an intimate connection, therefore, with issues of shame and humiliation. In one study of emotionally disturbed boys in a residential treatment centre, the most aggressive boys tended to see hostility and aggression in photographs they were shown when others could not identify this in these pictures. They interpreted relatively neutral and agreeable interactions as attempts to dominate others aggressively. Their world view seemed to be based on a lack of trust in others, and on deeply rooted internal working models that relationships must be based on winning or losing, domination and subservience, and triumph or shame and humiliation (Nasby, et al, 1980). Studies of family violence have also shown that men who display aggression towards their families have a tendency to view apparently unremarkable acts or words by family members as deliberate personal attacks (Goldstein & Rosenbaum, 1985).
The bully in the workplace, an example.
Stephen had joined a company as a designer two years before the incidents described here. He had successfully completed a number of projects and he had recently signed up for an external qualification at a University in a city some 100 miles from the town in which he lived and worked. He had enjoyed a reasonable, if remote relationship with the manager of the section of the company he worked in. However, this changed when, as Stephen gained more confidence as he progressed through his university course, he began to publish articles in professional publications and he was invited to join the national committee of a professional organisation. His relationship with his manager, Robert, seemed to change overnight, and it seemed as if nothing could please Robert any more. He would seem to deliberately target Stephen for criticism in meetings so that Stephen was publicly humiliated. This criticism became worse when Stephen was invited by another section of the company to work for one day a week for them, so that his expertise could be utilised by them. Robert set up a persecutory system of monitoring Stephen's work, implying that it was not good enough. It is not surprising that, in the face of this criticism and public humiliation, Stephen became demotivated and extremely anxious, and he therefore made more mistakes, which served as further grounds for criticism from Robert. Robert seemed to deliberately select public forums in which to criticise and humiliate Stephen.
When love and hate clash, either we feel guilt and make reparation, or we are persecuted by guilt. To avoid either consequence, we can pervert the truth, draw strength from a good object and feel free to practice cruelty in the name of goodness. It is as though we omnipotently hijack human righteousness and conduct cruelty in the name of justice. We now take for granted that omnipotent behaviour belongs to the nature of man. History affords us many examples of this: the Hitler regime, idealised omnipotent national conquest, revolutions and their subsequent regimes. This perversion is well illustrated by the Spanish Inquisition, which took the Christian ethic of tolerance, understanding and brotherly love, and tortured ruthlessly in the name of Christianity. (Brenman, 1985).
Although Robert was generally friendly in the organisation, and many people could not believe that he was capable of such persecution, he had a history of attempting to intimidate and persecute employees who were relatively powerless and who seemed to threaten him – a male employee had left the company shortly before Stephen started working for the company – he had had a difficult relationship with Robert because he had been able to be assertive and able to speak his mind. He eventually left saying that he could tolerate Robert's behaviour no longer.
However, these characteristics were more generally recognised when Robert argued with a manager outside of his section of the company. On this occasion, Robert asked the manager of another section if his department could share the use of a room that belonged to the other section. The reply was that the other section was sorry it could not oblige, but they were using the room regularly for a specific purpose and it could not be made available for use in another section partly because of the regularity of use but also because of the equipment that could not be easily moved. Robert reacted angrily and started a campaign of attrition, involving senior managers and various committees, demanding the room. Robert and the manager of the other section had a very uncomfortable meeting in which Robert made various threats in the course of demanding the use of the room he had asked for one of which was "I thought we were friends but I will never speak to you again and I'll do anything in my power to obstruct you". In the course of this meeting, it became clear that Robert had experienced the rejection as a humiliation and an attack on his status and position in the company, and that he was bent on retaliation. The underlying issue of entitlement is obvious: a perception that he was entitled to special treatment and to have his own needs met without question.
Eventually, a compromise was reached so that the room was shared by both sections of the company, to the inconvenience and detriment of the section that had previously owned it. The fact that this compromise was reached might, it may be supposed, only encourage Robert to attempt similar bullying tactics in the future. It is noteworthy that Robert has now progressed to the ranks of senior management and that this episode seems to have done him no harm. His progress has been made possible by his obvious determination and ambition, his calculated strategic moves, and his willingness to spend his personal time in creating good relationships with the people who matter. He has the techniques: a prolonged, firm handshake, prolonged eye contact, simulated sincerity, and so forth. He was also not averse to a subtle touch of hidden and undetectable character assassination when this could injure a potential rival.
This was a small, specialist adult mental health team. The dynamics and atmosphere of the team significantly changed when two new people, Richard and Susan, started work in the team at almost the same point in time. Richard had the powerful role of team leader/co-ordinator, and he and Susan quickly formed a partnership. The atmosphere of the team changed from being relaxed and friendly to feeling persecutory and unsafe.
That man can destroy life is just as miraculous a feat as that he can create it, for life is the miracle, the inexplicable. In the act of destruction, man sets himself above life; he transcends himself as a creature. Thus, the ultimate choice for a man, inasmuch as he is driven to transcend himself, is to create or to destroy, to love or to hate. Erich Fromm.
Much less evil would be done on earth if evil could not be done in the name of good. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Aphorisms. 1880-1905. Tr. David Scrase and Wolfgang Meider, 1994.
The evil of our time is the loss of consciousness of evil. Krishnamurti, in Stephanie Salter, "Evil's Shadow Falls across a Killer's Sanity Trial", San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, 9th Feb 1992.
Few men are sufficiently discerning to appreciate all the evil they do. La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1665, tr. Leonard Tancock, 1959.
The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint… but it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. C.S. Lewis, introduction to The Screwtape Letters, rev. ed., 1982(1942).
The main reason for this was the atmosphere provoked by the two new members. When external professionals visited the team for consultation or discussion about referrals they had made, for example, they were invariably made to feel that what they had provided had been inadequate, that the questions they wanted answering were unreasonable, and even that their referral to the team had been perhaps incorrect in the first place. They left feeling attacked, humiliated, exposed, and angry.
This also occurred within the team. Two other team members seemed to have been selected to become scapegoats and were made to feel unwelcome and inadequate. There was a feeling that things would be better if only these people would leave the team.
The two new members seemed to have set up a "folie a deux" relationship based on a sadomasochistic dynamic, mutually supporting each other in their own view that they were "special". When other team members opened up a discussion they seemed to experience reasonable discussion as an attack and they would retaliate in kind. It felt that the only alternatives were either to remain silent or to enter into conflict, there was no in-between. Additionally, alternative views or conceptualisations, of case material for example, were either put down in a subtle way or deflected as wrong or inappropriate. It felt that they always had to be right and they were prepared to twist logic, use aggression, and overpower any potential opposition or difference of views in order to maintain this. Additionally, they managed to powerfully convey the impression that their own position and orientation was the only one worthy of respect, and all other approaches were devalued, unsupported, and undermined.
Unsurprisingly, this created an unhappy team.
In this same team another team member, Rebecca, who had undertaken specialist training in the treatment of eating disorders carefully prepared a proposal to teach other professionals within the organisation and pass on the skills she had gained. She discussed the proposal fully with other professionals and asked for their thoughts about what they wanted from the proposal. A suggestion was made that the organisation bring in external speakers. Susan made this suggestion. Although Rebecca felt somewhat undermined by this suggestion, being a specialist in the area herself, she agreed to this suggestion and agreed to explore sources of funding to bring in one or two external teachers.
A month later Rebecca was called out of a team meeting for an emergency. She arrived back 20 min. later to find that Susan had almost concluded an agreement, with the active support and financial assistance of Richard, to bring an external speaker to the team. This speaker was someone from a competing theoretical stance from Rebecca. Although other team members felt that Susan's behaviour was typically arrogant and they felt uncomfortable about the fact that Rebecca was not present, they did not speak and they effectively went along with her and Richard. Why? When asked they said that Richard and Susan did not listen to them anyway and their views were always dismissed. It seemed that everyone apart from Richard and Susan felt dismissed and unimportant. Comments were also made that Susan did not realise that Rebecca would have any feelings about what had occurred. In fact, it is likely that Richard and Susan got together before the meeting to agree on their strategy and they were not concerned about Rebecca's feelings.
Communists and Nazis alike have tragically demonstrated that in a large proportion of mankind the impulse to inflict torture exists, and requires only opportunity to display itself in all its naked horror. But I do not think that these evils can be cured by blind hatred of their perpetrators. This will only lead us to become like them. Although the effort is not easy, one should attempt…..to understand the circumstances that turn men into fiends, and to realise that it is not by blind rage that such evils will be prevented. I do not say that to understand is to pardon; there are things which for my part I find I cannot pardon. But I do say that to understand is absolutely necessary if the spread of similar evils over the whole world is to be prevented. A World Apart by Gustav Herling.
In supervision, Rebecca reflected on how she had always felt deskilled in this team. Although she had undertaken advanced specialist training in advance of any other member of the service she was made to feel that she was inadequate and her skills and training were undervalued. Her supervisor helped her to understand the envy and aggression behind Richard and Susan's actions. They could not tolerate her having any abilities, skills or qualities that evoked their envy and their response to these dynamics was to undermine her authority and her work and to undermine any project of hers that would demonstrate her skills or abilities. The supervisor advised Rebecca to "watch her back" given the destructiveness of the work culture and gave her some strategies to manage these difficulties. The supervision group also commented on and discussed the potential destructiveness of Richard and Susan.
Richard and Susan "ganged up" on Rebecca and others, defending themselves against any feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability or weakness. Their primary objective seemed to be to maintain a dominant position by inducing others to experience these feelings instead. Their attitude was always superior, derisive and critical (envious?), undermining other forms of authority or ability. This tyrannical duo seemed bent on subjugation and denigration that was experienced as actively bullying by other team members. They bolstered their own egos at the expense of others.
Additionally, in this organisation a bullying culture seemed to have taken hold because in the wider system Richard and Rebecca were scapegoated for holding the theoretical orientation they adhered to and opportunities and resources were denied to them. In some ways this opposition to them seemed to have been provoked by their denigration of others within the organisation which was actively returned to them. However, this "return of the projections' only served to intensify these dynamics.
After some years in the team Susan had the opportunity to move into a new role within the team, something she had been working towards for some years. However, through a process that was not entirely clear this new job was blocked in a quite extraordinary manner. It seemed fairly clear that old grievances were being paid back. This was a lesson in the fact that high handedness, arrogance, and neglect of the feelings of others in institutional life are qualities that do not necessarily pay. Those who have been hurt or humiliated have long memories. Susan then felt forced to look elsewhere for employment. This is an example of the return of projections in a scapegoating situation: the scapegoating individuals become scapegoated and humiliated in return and may then have to leave the group. Alternatively, a cycle of increasingly intensifying humiliations and attacks between two groups may occur.
I and the public know, What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done, Do evil in return.
Again, in the same team, two junior team members were engaged to work with a couple whilst individual work was pursued by Susan. Richard took over the role of engaging with dialogue with the wider system and attending meetings. On numerous occasions Richard directly engaged the couple, when he met them at meetings, in discussions about what they should be doing in therapy and the areas they needed to work on in a high handed and superior manner. He did not seem to realise how undermining this was of the couple therapists, especially given his status and how he might be giving a powerful message to the couple that their therapists were not good enough. Indeed, he seemed to be actively encouraging the marital pair to draw this conclusion and he seemed to be agreeing with it even though he had engaged these therapists in this work.
Richard, in fact, had the reputation of picking up the cases of team members when they were on leave and becoming actively involved, often undermining the efforts of the therapists involved. This created resentment, not least because Richard gave the impression of always knowing best a view that was invariably different from the view of the therapist concerned. Additionally, he had a habit of sending back memos and reports of other team members with corrections of grammar and spelling.
This pair never seemed to miss an opportunity to "supervise" other team members and to convey the impression that they knew best. This powerfully communicated a message that they were superior in skills and ability and their "supervisees" were lacking in skills and expertise, in a "talking-down" manner rather than the conversation being a conversation between relative equals. They never missed an opportunity to point out omissions of fact, to contradict perceptions or interpretations, or to point out flaws in arguments, with those both external and internal to the team. Peer supervision meetings became forums for a competitive agenda in which there was no genuine wish to help others with cases but only a wish to display knowledge and superiority, and this dynamic effectively undermined the gentler voices that were more genuinely helpful, connected, and empathic. Richard used his own empathic skills only to attack and humiliate in an aggressive manner that felt intrusive and exposing to the recipient of his attention.
In fact, the other professionals in the team, apart from a couple of relatively inexperienced team members, had all worked in mental health settings for many years and had areas of experience and expertise that were unique in the team. It was an indication of the power of this duo combined that no one seemed to be able to challenge or protest about these dynamics. However, there were wry comments that Richard, particularly, always seemed to know more about everything than anyone else and about how controlling this pair needed to be.
It is worthy of note that Richard was eventually discovered to have had an affair with a patient for a period of some ten years. At the same time he had been having an affair with a member of his staff and he had also engaged in numerous temporary affairs with junior members of staff. It was noted that he frequently railed against men who deceived their wives during team meetings yet this was exactly the behaviour he had engaged in himself. Additionally, he criticized staff who were not on time for their appointments with patients, yet he was regularly late for therapeutic work with co-therapists and he seemed to expect others to have no difficulties with his behaviour. These behaviours can only be taken to be yet further indications of a narcissistic problem.
Both plays (The Secret Rapture & The Permanent Way) are about people who don't have a theory of evil, who blunder into situations without any real sense of the idea that people might actually wish them ill. David Hare.
When he was eventually forced to take early retirement he adjusted badly to this loss of status and made many attempts to join a private practice in which he had previously held a position of responsibility. Evidently, his former status and authority had served only to support his narcissistic difficulties and, with the loss of these satisfactions, he was faced with emptiness and a sense of futility. He needed power, status, and influence in order to bolster his self-esteem. When employed he seemed always to be spearheading yet another initiative in a frenetic manner – when one project was accomplished he would quickly begin another project of which he was in charge and the sole initiator. These projects often devalued individuals already working in the service because he seemed not to recognise that there were local skills and he went on crusades to engage "experts" from far away. It was as if his need for recognition and for a position of control and importance could not be satisfied by the local pond in which he swam.
It is worth noting that the profession of psychotherapy may be an attractive field for the individual with narcissistic problems. I have personally seen at least two individuals whose training has served to provide them with an inflated sense of importance and who seemed to enter and use training to create a grandiose self. Their bubble was never pricked throughout training and afterwards they used their status as a psychotherapist to parade their importance and to make others feel inadequate. In my view this problem needs to be part of our consciousness as a profession and we need to take much greater steps than we are currently doing to ensure that narcissistic defences and desires are addressed in training.
Freud said that, in his view, the wish to help was based on sadistic impulses and if this is the case we might also think that the masochistic pole of this dynamic might also be present. It is possible that the wish to help may sometimes be a restrictive solution to a familiar sadomasochistic situation in childhood. Of course, it is also true that there is also a healthy aspect to altruism that may well be part of our genetic makeup.
Narcissism and grandiosity may be a problem that is engrained in our "group matrix" in that we have all have entered training partly because of the fantasy that it will provide us with greater importance and authority than we naturally possess. If this is so, narcissism connected with our professional identity may be part of the group unconscious, a shadow self, that is hard for us to recognise or acknowledge.
The Eleventh of September, 2001 and Iraq
It is not unreasonable to propose that the USA experienced the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers as a narcissistic wound and a profound humiliation – an intrusion into and a violation of the motherland. It also seems not unreasonable to propose that this event came about at least partially because the Muslim groups involved experienced the USA as humiliating and shaming the Muslim world in general because of its aggressions against Third World countries and its support of Israel in particular.
The current plans by the USA (February 2003) to invade Iraq appear to be motivated by a wish to humiliate a Muslim country in return for the humiliations experienced by the destruction of the World Trade Centre (as well as, of course, a wish to have cheap oil and a wish to attain power and influence over that region of the world). The probable course of events is that the USA will occupy Iraq, thereby invoking the anger of the Arab world, and US forces will then become an immobile target for al_Qaida and other forces, and enable Bin Laden to complete the task he set himself when the World Trade Centre was attacked.
It is distressing to acknowledge that 12 years of sanctions against Iraq have only spread disease and malnutrition among the citizens we supposedly care about. The US has dropped cluster bombs during its continued aerial war, and the use of depleted-uranium weapons in the first Gulf war is continuing to poison Iraqi veterans and the environment. It is more correct to take the view that the West has continued to be at war with Iraq throughout the 1990's. This war has been a secret war, concealed from the citizens of the West through the manipulations of its politicians but more so through the apathy and unconcern of the populations of these countries. We are all responsible for this.
© Terry Birchmore. 2003.