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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 292

Paragraph Numbers 115 123

Volume 5

Chapter 7

Subsection 17

Situations: triggers of violence

115 If there is a single dominant message emerging from psychological research over the past fifty years, it is a tale that emphasises the persuasive power of the immediate situation. While it is dangerous to regard situational forces as inevitable since there are always possibilities of resistance, it would be as much of an error to see resistance to situational forces as merely freedom of choice, strength of character or individual moral maturity. We are social creatures, and resistance to situational powers is also a matter of positioning in relation to others. For instance, resistance to the powers of group pressure is easier if you are part of a small group standing together, than on your own.

116 The literature in this area is quite technical and complex and a more detailed account is given in Foster’s paper to the Commission19. Centrally at issue here is a question of the motives involved in ‘binding people’ into groups and to authority. There are three main motivational processes: compliance, identification and internalisation.

19 D Foster, ‘Perpetrators of gross violations of human rights’. Paper submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 1997.
Binding forces

a Compliance is a process of going along with a group because we wish to avoid censure (avoid sticking out like a sore thumb) or gain approval, and because groups provide us with information, they shape reality.

b Identification is a second process of binding a person to authority, in which one ‘goes along’ because one feels the same identity (group, culture, racial, national) as the authority. This is the version of social identity theory, given above.

c Internalisation is a process in which one goes along, complies with a particular institutional authority because it is consonant, in agreement with one’s values.

117 While these three processes begin to explain why we become bound into groups, institutions and authorities, they do not yet suggest violence. Stanley Milgram’s experiments, in which ordinary people gave high levels of electric shocks to innocent people in a laboratory, point out further processes in the steps towards violent actions.20

118 Two intertwined sets of processes are discernible from Milgram’s work. On the one hand, there are those forces that bind the person into the situation. On the other hand, there are processes that distance us from the victim. These two operate in tandem. The ‘binding in’ processes turn on the hierarchy, surveillance and legitimacy of authority. Obedience to authority even to the point of acting violently is more likely when authorities are powerful, act as a group (consensually), are regarded as legitimate and have increased surveillance. On the other side, the greater the degree of psychological distance from the victim, and the more the perpetrator is reduced to a link in the chain of orders (the bureaucratic process), the more substantial is the degree of violence. Obedience to authority is not inevitable however. When circumstances were so arranged that two peers rebelled together, obedience dropped dramatically. Milgram commented as follows:

Revolt against malevolent authority is most effectively brought about by collective rather than individual action. (1974, p. 116.)

119 Two further aspects are pertinent to an understanding of the binding to authority. Both refer to subtle, almost imperceptible, but powerful ‘rules’ that operate in everyday life. The first refers to the sheer embarrassment involved in refusal. It requires making a scene, disruption, argument, making a fuss. The second process involves sequencing: a step-by-step interactive spiral that draws the person in – by volunteering in the first instance, by accepting the early steps, by being drawn into the experimenter’s definition of the situation and by ‘tuning in’ to the authority rather than the victim.

120 These two processes, working together, operate in subtle, quite normal ways to suck a person into a positioning of obedience, rendering refusals and resistance difficult. Regarding this process of sequencing, here we extract from John Deegan’s story.

Slowly the artistic side started slipping away and I started getting into the kind of conventional, macho world of things.
I really didn’t understand the function of the Special Branch until I was in it … I thought I could still hold onto the real person in me, the artist, the sensitive idealist … I thought I could actually do good within the police force … but the system changed me, and it was a long process of erosion and mixing with these people and becoming part of the culture.

121 As Bauman stated in his study of the Holocaust: “Cruelty is social in its origins much more than it is characterological”21. Other studies have shown that it is particular roles and positions that people are placed in, rather than their personal characters, that lead to abusive actions. Perpetrators themselves may be in part victims of their circumstances; lines may blur and grey areas appear.

122 Crimes of obedience occur due to three main reasons, reiterating themes already discussed above.

a Authorisation is the process in which authorities order, implicitly encourage, or tacitly approve of violence. The impulse to obey orders, to follow rules even with pride (to do one’s duty) propels perpetrators forward.

b Routinisation is understood as a sequence in which events are organised as routine, repetitive, programmed: little in the way of serious thinking or decision is required.

c Dehumanisation is a process in which victims are transformed into creatures to whom normal morality does not apply.

123 Although the top political structures of the apartheid government repeatedly denied giving orders, as in the words of former Minister Vlok, “I never gained the impression anybody proposed an instruction or issued and instruction with such a sinister objective”, it is also quite clear that in the minds of operatives such as Colonel Eugene de Kock, they were acting under orders. There seems to be ample evidence of such orders in De Kock’s recent book. It is also clear from De Kock’s account that all these factors implicated in crimes of obedience – that is, authorisation, routinisation, and dehumanisation – systematically became part of the security force culture.

20 S Milgram, Obedience to authority. New York: Harper, 1974. 21 Z Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. London: Fontana, 1989, p.116.
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