Don’t Scapegoat the Bully

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Recently by Butler Shaffer: The Importance of Free Minds

     

The scapegoat has always had the mysterious power of unleashing man's ferocious pleasure in torturing, corrupting, and befouling.

~ Francois Mauriac

The mainstream media — priesthood of the modern state religion — continues to create fear-objects in whose presence we are expected to tremble while seeking the divine intervention of political systems for our salvation. The specter of the "bully" — the playground tormentor with which most of us had to contend in our youth — has been resurrected for our consumption. Films, television dramas and news reports, even a revisit to the teenage years of Mitt Romney, remind us of the ruffians whose sole function in life seems to be to dehumanize others. They also provide a vivid example of one of the more troubling characteristics of a destructive, conflict-ridden society: the tendency to project our "dark side" onto a scapegoat, which can then be punished for our own shortcomings.

One of the greatest impediments to our living in conditions of peace and liberty with one another lies in the failure of most of us to acknowledge our personal "dark side." It is discomforting to realize that we have the capacity to engage in dishonest acts, or violence, or laziness, or cowardice, or racist sentiments, or any of a number of other traits that do not comport with the images we have of ourselves. Even though we may consciously reject any of these negative qualities, and may never act upon them, we do not like admitting to their presence, particularly to the critic we fear the most: our inner sense of being. Far better that we rid ourselves of such characteristics. But how do we do so?

One way, of course, is to repress the inner voices that tell us of our shortcomings. If we consciously deny their presence, or can focus attention on other matters, we can — at least momentarily and unconsciously — relieve ourselves of feelings we would prefer not to acknowledge about ourselves. More often, however, we unconsciously choose to disassociate ourselves from the "dark side" voices by projecting them onto others (i.e., a scapegoat) and then punishing the substitute for the qualities we fear reside within us.

Let us suppose that an inter-racial couple sits down at a table in a restaurant and, upon their doing so, a woman at an adjoining table gets up and leaves. At another table, a man says to his companion "look at that: that woman left because she didn't want to sit next to an inter-racial couple." This man is engaged in projection. He had no way of knowing why the woman acted as she did. Perhaps she was through eating, or tired of waiting for a waiter to take her order, or was, indeed, offended at sitting next to this couple. But the man commenting upon her behavior had only his own thinking to inform him of her purposes.

Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" reminds us of the inherently subjective nature of our thinking; that we evaluate what we see — or even what we choose to look at — from the perspective of our learned experiences; that the observer is, indeed, an inevitable part of the act of observation. This does not mean that what our subjectively-based opinions tell us is necessarily in error: our interpretation may be correct. The woman who left the restaurant may very well have done so because of racist dispositions. The point is, the man commenting upon her actions had no way of knowing what was at work within her mind; he had only his own thinking and attitudes to guide him.

Might projection be at work in the current media and political campaign against bullying? The distasteful, harmful, and in some cases deadly behavior of those who use violence against weaker persons, is worthy of condemnation. As children, we had to discover our own strategies for dealing with bullies. The more astute among us soon figured out that the bully could appear in many forms beyond the playground brute who beat up the smaller kids for their lunch money.

Might our aversion to bullying transcend our grade-school experiences? Might we unconsciously sense the presence of the bully in our adult lives, whose violent ways we struggle to avoid? On the other hand, do we continue to embrace the strategy learned in our childhood years of toadying up to the bully? Might the inner voices of our "dark side" now whisper to us that our lifelong accommodation with organized systems of brute force has turned us into the bully?

If our "dark side" reminds us that what our conscious mind rejects is very much alive deep within us; and if we want to live without having to juggle such contradictory qualities, how can we do so? The default method is found in the crude practice of projection: we will attribute the bullying disposition to those whose actions do not require us to confront our institutional commitments. The modern grade-school and high-school hooligans who brutalize their classmates will serve this role nicely. In condemning the behavior of children, we can pose as defenders of civility without, at the same time, having to confront the ever-increasing brutalities that inhere in the adult systems to which we are so firmly attached.

When teenagers pummel a helpless boy or girl into a state of unconsciousness, the wrongdoers will be sought out and severely punished; they may even be prosecuted as "adults" to reinforce our make-believe commitment to ridding society of bullying. But what about police officers who gun-down or taser innocent, non-threatening people — some of them the elderly in their own homes? What about these strong-arm bullies of the state who have been videotaped beating unarmed men to death, or pepper-spraying college students as they sit quietly on the ground? To Boobus, such ruffians represent the law-and-order without which, they have been trained to believe, society would become violent!

When the hormones of an adolescent get the better of him, and he reaches out to touch the breasts of a female classmate, he will be charged with "sexual harassment" and, whether convicted or not, will spend the rest of his life with the label of "sex offender" tattooed upon his identity. But what of the adult gropers, fondlers, and viewers of enforced nakedness employed, by the state, to assault airline passengers? Should they — like Hester — be forced to wear a "SO" designation as well? "Oh, no," intones Boobus, "those people are there to protect us from terrorists!"

Young men who break into private homes in the night and kill the inhabitants will be prosecuted "to the full extent of the law," we will be told. But if such men are American soldiers, and engage in such acts in foreign countries, their wrongdoing will not rise to the level of moral condemnation. Instead, Boobus will put another "support the troops" bumper-sticker on his car, and perhaps an American flag as well.

What of the urban street-gangs who have turned so much of our inner cities into battlefields as they violently compete with one another for sovereignty over various territories? How does this differ from the war-making of the American government that disguises its terrorist behavior (remember the "Shock and Awe" bombing of Baghdad?) as "foreign policy"? If street-gang members adorned their cars with "support the Crips" bumper-stickers, the similarities would become evident to many.

This is how "projection" works, and why its energies are essential to political systems. Projection provides us with the illusion that our "dark side" fears can be assuaged by shifting them onto safe targets (i.e., a scapegoat). College courses, high-school assemblies, television network "specials," legislation, anti-bullying T-shirts, and other superficial expressions, will create the appearance that "bullying" is being confronted and ended. The Brutus Hulks of society will be sought out, drugged, prosecuted, gunned-down, or otherwise severely dealt with — at least as long as they act without apparent political authority. But that's as far as the "war against bullying" will go. Inquiries that implicate the institutionally violent nature of our well-organized world will not be undertaken.

The institutional order will be certain to clarify what it sees as the dividing line between "bullying" and "law and order." Following the Trayvon Martin shooting, the media was quick to point out that his alleged killer was not a police officer, but only a "neighborhood watch" volunteer. Likewise, the high-school Mitt Romney who, it is alleged, helped to forcibly restrain and cut the hair of a classmate could be distinguished from the modern GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Had he engaged in such behavior while governor of Massachusetts or, worse yet, while currently campaigning, it might cause Boobus some discomfort. It would be difficult to harmonize the Mitt-as-Delilah charge with the image Boobus has of a president. Bomb and torture innocent persons abroad; assassinate and imprison, without trial, Americans; and loot the treasury for the benefit of his corporate cronies: yes, that's the vision Boobus embraces, not that of someone who engages in bullying!

It is important to observe two points about projection: [1] the power of the state depends upon the scapegoat, whose presence is necessary to disguise and diffuse the conflicts, corruption, and contradictions that underlie all political systems. Economic depressions, wars, police-state brutalities, the wholesale plundering of taxpayers, and a more general cultural collapse, must be seen as the evildoing of persons outside the establishment. In this way, petroleum company greed — rather than Federal Reserve policies — can be offered as an explanation for rising gasoline prices. [2] The scapegoat need not be innocent of any wrongdoing. It is only essential that the substitute be seen as a wrongdoer, and that his or her role not be attributed to any established institutional interests. Soldiers who commit vicious crimes during wartime are guilty of what they have done. They can also serve as scapegoats to deflect the greater crimes of the war system itself. Thus can a Lt. Calley be convicted for his wrongs, while shielding Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and other fomenters and conductors of their murderous deeds.

If you want a career in politics, just be certain to keep a regular supply of scapegoats at your disposal, and to learn the fine art of quickly fabricating more in case of an emergency. The article of faith of all politicians — "never let a crisis go to waste" — demands this skill!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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