Saturday, November 05, 2011

Of Demons and Scapegoats

"A good scapegoat is nearly as welcome as a solution to the problem."
- Author unknown

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, UK's most celebrated scapegoat! And today is also the 4th anniversary of the publication of An Inconvenient Renewal, an infamous manifesto written by an obscure public servant (!) calling for better people management in organizations.

In one of my last posts, I told the story of some of the events that unfolded behind the scenes in the months that followed the release of my paper. I also expressed my thoughts on the recent so-called "indiscretion" of a certain Canadian public servant on Twitter.

However, going through the comments left by the readers further to the CBC article, I started seeing another narrative emerging: one of demons and scapegoats.

The word scapegoat is a mistranslation of the word "Azazel". In mythology, Azazel is often portrayed as a demon. In some religions, the scapegoat, or Azazel, is even a symbol for Satan. "The word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes." (Source)
"Scapegoating is a known practice in management where a lower staff employee is blamed for the mistakes of senior executives. This is often due to lack of accountability in upper management. For example, a teacher who constantly gets blamed or accused of wrongdoing could be a scapegoat if said teacher is only guilty of doing her job so well that she makes her coworkers and supervisory administration look bad. This could result in letters being placed in permanent files, condescending remarks from co-workers and constant blame finding from administration." (Source)
The explanation for the behaviour is that "social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual." In other words, "scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people." (Source)

Then I came across this article which makes the case that mobbing is a form of sociological scapegoating which occurs in the workplace:
"Mobbing can be understood as the stressor to beat all stressors. It is an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability, deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications comes to be seen as legitimate. [...]

The worker most vulnerable to being mobbed is an average or high achiever who is personally invested in a formally secure job, but who nonetheless somehow threatens or puts to shame co-workers and/or managers. Such a worker provides no legally defensible grounds for termination, yet usually fails to pick up subtle hints and leave voluntarily. An attractive solution, from the majority point of view, is to bring or wear this worker down, one way or another, however long it takes.

As the process drags on, both sides, collective and individual, dig in their heels. It is often as if the targeted worker has grabbed a hot wire and cannot let go, despite the pain and injury it inflicts. The worker’s investment of self and sense of having been deeply wronged prevent the one resolution that would satisfy the other side.

Ironically, it is in workplaces where workers’ rights are formally protected that the complex and devious incursions on human dignity that constitute mobbing most commonly occur. Union shops are one example, as in the case of the factory worker described above. University faculties are another, on account of the special protections of tenure and academic freedom professors have. It happens in police forces, too, since management rights in this setting are tempered by the oath officers swear to uphold the law. Mobbings appear to be much more frequent in the public service as a whole, as compared to private companies."
Obviously, I couldn't help but draw a parallel with the story of the public servant and his tweet, based on the reactions of some of the readers.

So last night I was relating the Twitter case to a theologian who specializes in mediation and conflict resolution. He had just attended a two-day course on the work of René Girard on scapegoating (neat coincidence, I know!). I submitted to him my hypothesis that the social media was being demonized and the public servant being punished for his inoffensive tweet was the scapegoat.

The mediator replied: "I could argue that the demon is not the social media, but rather the fear of the social media."

He paused and added: "...Or fear of the communication itself."

His comment reminded me of a line spoken by the character V as William Rockwood in a key scene of the movie V for Vendetta: "But the real genius of their plan was the fear. Fear became the ultimate tool."

What's your take? Is the current attitude in your organization towards social media more conducive to spreading fear or opening up communications?


Asif said...

Hi Etienne,

Good to see Contrarian Thinking alive and kicking again.

I'd say that a good scapegoat is MORE welcome than a solution to the problem -- it allows a convenient detouring around the messiness of examining underlying systemic issues that may be the real cause of the problem.

I'd agree that the demon is the fear of the communication itself -- which is why the scapegoat must be demon-ized: to avoid confronting the communication.

I'd add that (social) media acts as a force multiplier -- amplifying the communication -- which is why both the messenger and the medium are scapegoated: to silence the message.

David said...

Etienne you are not alone (far from it I'd wager) in having had front row seats around a nasty management bullying and/or mobbing incident within the Federal Public Service of Canada.

I've seen it happen frequently - and recently.

There are harsh and hard hitting repercusions for those who speak truth to power. The culture encourages instead a mindset of submission; "be obedient, compliant and work hard," seems to be the recipe for a long but perhaps not exciting career with the Feds.

... and the pressure I feel to not hit the 'publish' key after typing this short comment is strong - but truth spoken even in the face of power, is still the truth.

Anonymous said...

The idea that scapegoating is due to fear of communication hits the nail on the head, so the connection to social media is a natural one. It certainly extends beyond that though, for the root of the fear of communication is the attempt to prevent changing awareness and this deeply unsettles people whose power depends on image rather than substance and people whose sense of security is not concerned with the legitimacy of power, only the power of power.

Anonymous said...

All good discussion| Keep the posts coming!

ThinkTankSquare said...

Great to read you again. You are very right about communications being again under threats. All those fighting for ethic and transparency have never been more important. Note: your paper (Inconvenient renewal) stands in front of my cubicule "with photo" since its publication. You are NOT alone.