The Agony of the Scapegoat

Every psychotherapist is familiar with a kind of patient who is hiding behind the wall of himself. From behind his barricades, the client sends out probes, engages in attacks, briefly lowers his defenses for a look around and then quickly heads back for cover.

To its detriment, our society has modeled much of public life after a form of neurosis. Politicians often develop a fortress mentality, particularly when they are in public. They are constantly manning their fortifications and monitoring their performance. Hiding behind the wall of themselves, they want to strike out at their accusers but must keep the desire contained when on stage, along with all the other true feelings of the secret self.

They withdraw for much the same reason that many individuals who seek psychotherapy withdraw - fear of attack. The difference is that the politician's fears may be more rational than irrational. In public life, every error can become a focus of media attention and a weapon used to discredit politicians. Given the mad premises of the social system in which the politician operates, he must become an expert at hiding behind the mask of himself to survive.

He must develop a siege mentality. When in a situation that could be reported by the news media, he must put on a mask and constantly monitor his performance, to ensure there are no weak points that can be used as an opening by the press. Many public figures in this situation are able to protect themselves from the ravages of the game. They retain a sense that they are whole people, able to avow their actions and beliefs. When on stage, they monitor performance because it is part of the job. The mask is seen as what it is: a fictional creation, a temporary shield, a tool for survival. In private, they return to a more normal, less restricted presentation of themselves.

The reason public figures must do this is made painfully obvious by the fate of those whose acts of image-construction significantly fail. Public figures betray vulnerability, imperfection, wrongdoing or error, suddenly discover that an army of reporters is storming through the breach in their fortifications, waving video cameras and microphones and shooting embarrassing questions. The wall collapses and they are exposed. They are not what they pretended to be. They must suddenly deal with aggressive reporters and rude people who feel free to make insulting and aggressive comments. They lose jobs and perhaps their freedom. Their family may feel surrounded, with no place to escape or hide from constant scrutiny.

Thus discredited, they usually experience a set of fantasies, fears, desires and psychological states that draw much of their intensity and character from the experiences of childhood. For each, the constellation is unique and for each there is a unique mix of humiliation, shame, depression, hope, anxiety and guilt. Here are some of these often-unconscious thoughts and feelings experienced by those who are on the receiving end of very bad publicity. I present them here as if they are conscious, verbal thoughts, filled with emotion and anguish, although only some take that form:

"Everyone knows my secret. There is nowhere to hide, no exit, no escape. I am surrounded. I am stripped, revealed, vulnerable, without defense. My stigma, flaw or inadequacy is revealed to the world in glaring detail. I am raped, castrated, beaten up by press and society. I am rejected, forced out of my home in society, abandoned. I have lost value as a person. I am looked down on. I am small. I am impotent. I am guilty. I have let down my self/family/allies. How could I do this to them? I deserve what I am getting. I deserve punishment. I want to redeem myself by doing good. I am stained and the stain won't come off. I am unfairly accused and persecuted by evil people who have no right to do this to me. I want to expose my exposers, to get revenge, prove my innocence, and be victorious. I must hide any other flaws they don't know about. I am defeated, totally helpless, as my enemies gloat over my destruction."

The psychological meanings behind being a scapegoat may be vividly experienced by the victim. The ritual scapegoat is forced into the passive position. He is on the receiving end as press and politicians alike seek to sweep away his attempt to defend himself, to make their way to the soft point of vulnerability beneath. This is a form of symbolic castration and rape. Like many rapes and many acts of assault, it may be a sexualized game of power to determine who is on top.

The ritual scapegoat often experiences shame and humiliation. He is forced to take the blame, which is a relief for other people, since many have irrational feelings of guilt derived from childhood.

Those subjected to these attacks, also face a moral dilemma: will they retain their self-esteem and put their lives back together or fall apart. Those who were already public figures and thus have various resources at their command, such as money and allies, seem to handle it better than one might expect. They appear on the news, aggressively defending themselves and accusing their accusers. But the ultimate cost is hard to judge because, Jim Bakker aside, scapegoats hide most of their pain from public view, except perhaps when they write about it later from a distance. It is hard to blame them since to show pain is to appear vulnerable in the press and thus, to be discredited a second time.

Since public figures are frequently subjected to discrediting attacks, they may experience these thoughts and feelings even when they are merely fair game, and not in the scapegoat category for most of the media. And they may experience it as a result of fantasy in which they imagine what might happen to them.

In addition, public figures may have all kinds of irrational reactions to having to hide behind a mask, which makes them much like our therapy patient described at the beginning. They may feel as if they have a secret self hiding behind a social mask, a self that that harbors forbidden desires and is vulnerable to accusation, blame or humiliation. They may feel as if they are divided in three: the secret self, a front or mask, and a third self that monitors the manipulations of body language and speech, to ensure that nothing is being revealed..

All of this is part of the psychodynamics of the human mind. But, once again, it is exacerbated by the artificial conditions created by the stage of public life.

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