Thursday, 2 February 2012

(Sir) Fred the Scapegoat

As I've observed before, we seem to have developed a predilection for scapegoats in our public discourse. Rather than discussing and dealing with the complex causes of problems, we seek out an individual, or some individuals, to hang blame on. Usually, of course, in matters of politics, ethics and even as far as sport, it's never the fault of one individual. The failure of the England rugby team in New Zealand wasn't just Martin Johnson's fault, and yet the press were quick to bay for his scalp. The collapse of our cricketers against Pakistan wasn't one man's fault. The corruption of the press wasn't the work of one woman. It was a culture created over the years by public appetite and corporate greed. Corruption in the Met and financial laxity among parliamentarians was a result of rising amorality in public life in general.

This is the rather powerful painting by the pre-Raphaelite artist, Holman Hunt, of The Scapegoat as described in the Pentateuch. Every year on the Day of Atonement the goat is chosen by lot out of two, and is driven out into the desert symbolically carrying the sins of the people from the previous year. Hunt captures not only the physical isolation but also the mental desolation of the scapegoat. However the point in this case is that the victim is not a person but an animal. No doubt there's a surge of sympathy from animal-loving readers, and yet the point is that this is precisely what we try to do to human scapegoats. At least we get them out of sight and hopefully out of mind.

The latest hate-figure to be driven into the wilderness is, of course, the former boss of RBS, Mr Fred Goodwin. As many others have pointed out, he isn't a bad man and he wasn't a bad banker; but he was chief executive when the bank made one disastrous acquisition. Let's be clear: it was a decision approved by the shareholders and the board, recommended by merchant bankers, passed by the FSA and presumably by the Treasury. Fred Goodwin didn't bring down either the bank or the economy single-handed. And yet the politicians bayed for his public humiliation and, sadly, the Queen constitutionally obliged and stripped him of his knighthood.

Andrew Strauss, England's able and successful cricket captain, was honoured with an OBE in 2011. Should he have it removed after the debacle of the crushing defeats in Dubai? The idea is absurd, and yet the principle is the same.

It seems to me too easy a debating-tool to single out an individual as the encapsulation of an issue. It's too easy to identify him or her as the problem itself, and therefore to claim that you've solved it with their removal. There's a sense of satisfied blood-lust which has a very uncivilised smell about it. And I'm sad to say that that our politicians and our journalists indulge in it with increasing frequency and ferocity.

I was watching the first programme, Protecting our Children, last night and I have to say that my heart ached for all involved, especially the family, whose parents clearly had inadequate role models for parenting and seemed to have no wider family to support them. The father in particular was completely out of his depth both in fathering and in dealing with kindly but highly articulate social workers. It was a painfully sad story. One thing that struck me was that dad's only recourse was to blame their young social worker, who "has always had it in for us". It was, it seemed to me, that primitive reaction to a mess to pin the blame on someone else, i.e. to find a scapegoat. In his case it was excusable, because he had such limited personal resources. However from first-class Oxford graduates, on whatever side of the political spectrum, who are trained to think and to argue issues through in the premier debating chamber of the country it is inexcusable. It is simply a lazy and low form of populism. 
It also avoids addressing the real underlying issues, and in that respect is simply laying up trouble for the future. The action preceding the animal scapegoat was for the people to examine and admit where they'd gone wrong. Without that we may feel better, but we get no better. As the Wikipedia article puts it:
"Since this goat is sent away to perish, 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."

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