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Counselling, Guy Fawkes and Scapegoating

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As we move into November there are the usual festivals to celebrate. Halloween seems to be taking over as the key event but as 5th November and Guy Fawkes still retains a place at the autumn table, I have been thinking about Mr Fawkes. 

Guy Fawkes played various roles in the drama enacted back in 1605 but his presence on the top of bonfires, emphasises that he remains firmly positioned in the minds of many as the scapegoat for the failed plot.

That identification of scapegoats is not just something for the history books. It is a practice that we still continue to engage in. This is not just when for example we publicly lambast a politician for what may be wider societal failings but also when we reflect on our innermost thoughts.

Within the therapy room it is those private scapegoats who sometimes drift to the surface.  We are increasingly encouraged (and usually by therapists!) to be accountable for our own actions. That recognition of the consequences of personal choice is something I adhere to but perhaps this can sometimes be taken too far. On occasions it can be appropriate to look to outside forces as the ‘reason why’.

An event I recently attended focussed on what is known as Compassion Focussed Therapy. The principal speaker reminded all those present that there are somethings in our lives for which we cannot take personal responsibility.  We did not for example choose our sex, our parents or our schools. These things along with a myriad of other life situations and positions will have been allocated to us by that arbitrary spin of the wheel of life.   

We are however usually free to decide how and when to use many of the life cards with which we have been dealt.   That freedom of choice can however sometimes appear to be restricted or inhibited and that may be when the scapegoating technique is employed.

I had to.  I was made to.  I had no choice ” are comments that can be expressed in the therapy room.  On some occasions that may indeed be so. There may well have been situations when these imperatives have been present. It can however also be argued that to continually insist that someone else has forced me or made me do something, may be a subtle attempt to shift or even abrogate personal responsibility.

If someone tells me as I stand confused, hesitant and apprehensive on the top floor of the car park, “to hurry up and jump” , are they the enforcer of my fate or merely putting forward a suggestion, albeit a cruel one,  for me to consider?   

Occasionally in the counselling room I will hear of those who are demonised. An individual referred to in the client narrative, may be designated as the scapegoat because she/he appeared to act in a certain way which resulted in emotional trauma for others.

We may quickly identify an aggressor who deserves denunciation.  Parents, neighbours, siblings, lovers or bosses can all become scapegoats in our stories.  The actions of these malevolent others provide a reason as to why something unpleasant happened to us, why we suffered or why we were not promoted.

But before you (in a fantasy sense I hope!) place your accused on the top of that bonfire of unpleasant or unfulfilled memories past, you may want to be absolutely sure that this seemingly malicious individual is the real transgressor and not just your stooge. 

Remember scapegoats have feelings too. The one you condemn to those abstract flames may have felt they were actually trying help, support or encourage. The words may have been intended as support even though they were heard by you as criticism. 

And even if there is no room for doubt. Even if someone has deliberately erred, behaved abominably, and wreaked destruction, are they really the sole cause of all that has gone wrong.  Perhaps they too are now looking around for someone to blame, perhaps even looking in your direction and maybe they are also thinking that you………..?

Let us go back to Mr Fawkes for a final thought.

Given the current frenzy of activity focussed on those who are now labelled as terrorists and perceived to be an existential threat to our way of life, there is something wonderfully ironic that we still spend time effort and energy around this time of year celebrating someone who was undoubtedly a very real seventeenth century terrorist.

I wonder if those who now spend time commemorating Mr Fawkes realise that they are probably falling foul of those recently introduced laws which warn against providing succour and support for terrorists.  

New laws quickly introduced are known to often have unintended consequences. Does the recent legislation mean that an offered glass of mulled wine or a served hot potato in celebration of Mr Fawkes’s memory invite a six months suspended prison sentence as a result of seemingly commemorating a terrorist act. And does the deed of asking for a ‘penny for the guy’ whilst lighting a celebratory bonfire constitute raising funds in favour of a convicted terrorist?

Am I being serious?  The alarming thing is that I am not actually sure!     I do rather suspect though that in another four hundred years’ time there will still be scapegoats being burnt in effigy on the top of combustible creations.  An interesting question is who that figure will be intended to represent!

It is tricky stuff this scapegoating.  And if these musings start to prompt some disturbing thoughts on your part then perhaps some calming therapy could be in order?  Doors to the counselling room are of course always open to accusers and scapegoats alike!




Geoff Boutle

added on 1st November 2015

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