The “I” in Revenge; the “We” in Scapegoating

As readers of this blog know I’ve been working to understand the connection between revenge and scapegoating.

Last week I was in the middle of being interviewed about my  novels which as you may know  are all about Revenge. My interviewer  was not at all comfortable with the topic of revenge once she realized that besides wanting to write a good yarn, I was actually serious about trying to understand the uses of revenge in ordinary life and particularly in my work with patients, clients, advisees and the like. As our conversation progressed, I realized that she wanted me to say revenge was  bad, that forgiveness was good, and that goal of my healing work should point the way toward that view. I said that I’m all for forgiveness but that doesn’t mean that revenge is a force that can  be dismissed from our psyches. Furthermore revenge itself and has the potential for powerful self understanding not to mention healing all on its own. Examples, she said, but as I gave examples,  she  gently, than firmly moved me towards her own view of the virtues of forgiveness and then, finally away from the subject altogether towards my book, Up from Scapegoating. Now there was a subject we both could talk about with gusto and we did for another two hours. upfromebook

After the interview I realized that for most people revenge is a much harder subject than scapegoating. The more I thought about this counter intuitive reaction the more I realized that although the two are linked by a chain of causation–all scapegoats inevitably feel the need for revenge– the two processes reflect fundamental difference in human perspective, our bipartite consciousness in  personal and our group identities. Individual consciousness is more familiar and available  which is why we are able to accept revenge and distance ourselves from scapegoating.  We hope scapegoating happens to others and is done by others while revenge is something we feel inside ourselves. To put it another way, we all participate in scapegoating  as part of a our role in a naturally occurring  group process but because   group consciousness is mostly unknown or unconscious, we dismiss it as alien, a  “not  I” phenomena.  Revenge on the other hand is located in the  individual even when it is motivated by group issues.

Revenge can be  a delicious process to contemplate. It has so many possiblities, so many realms of fantasy to explore most of which are kept to ourselves.  It is always dangerous to bring these  fantasies out in the open. Acting upon them, even the contemplation of vengeful action, is frought with fear and anxiety. And so we inwardly obsess outwardly delight when we see  the parade of revenge plots in our our ubiquitous screen entertainments. In conversations about my novels where I bring aspects of revenge into the realm of possiblity, I have  learned to accept the way  talk of forgiveness quickly flowers and a few examples of the transformation of revenge into forgiveness by extraordinary people, eg. Jesus, Mandela, a variety of social activists, are brought forth as proof of the human potential for good. Of course I cannot help but agree with working toward forgiveness but when I add that revenge, even in the best of circumstances, is a hard impulse to dismiss and can be of use, I am usually told that I’m just being ornery.

Unless we are the  scapegoat, we view scapegoating as a process that is happening outside ourselves. Nothing could be further than the truth but it is requires knowledge of group process to see why that is and difficult work to see how it can be changed. Today on a walk in the Marin Headlands, a brilliant and knowledgeable friend  wondered about whether she herself scapegoated people by turning away those who wanted help from her. To her great credit she saw the answer herself. I have spent a good part of my processional life consulting to groups about scapegoating and it is always difficult for ‘good’ people (and most everyone thinks they are good,) to understand how, as part of a group, we may do something really bad to others. The complicitness of the silent majority is the energy of our worst scapegoating episodes.

My own experience is that revenge is  a powerful but malleable force that with courageous reflection can be transformed. In my Revenge Inc.Thrillers,  Cloud of Terns and Revenge of the Scapegoat,  Wiley Stone  and Dave Blue explore how offering all the possiblilites of action to someone who has been abused can change their lives. Scapegoating is harder. To most of us it  is an invisible evil.

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