Today on my ride home I heard a sports commentator discussing a recent abuse scandal on a high school football team. While the commentator did not dispute the evidence of abuse, he asked another whether he had ever heard of such behavior before by a football team. It seemed he was a bit surprised a team or a coach would tolerate systemic abuses of other teammates.
Why are we surprised when an organization tolerates harm done by one set of members to another set of members?
Whenever an organization (football, school, fraternity, or religious community) seeks to best the competition, limits membership, rejects all who would support other groups, maintains secrecy a strong hierarchy, you have a recipe for systemic abuse. Look closer at this recipe:
- A population of individuals who deeply desire inclusion, who want to be in the inner circle
- A population of individuals already in the inner circle and feeling mighty proud of it
- Everyone feeling the need to protect the organization over individual needs/concerns
- Secrecy about decision-making processes
- Leadership who will maintain the hierarchy and encourage fears over what might happen if the system breaks down.
We know hazing and abuse happens on sports teams, fraternities, military units, and any other organization with these above-named features. It is more natural than we would like to admit.
This does not mean that all popular organizations, all private clubs are abusive. Rather, only without significant effort, individual abusive acts will morph into systemic abuse through complicity.
What significant efforts reduce the possibility of systemic abuse? Here are a few for starters:
- Transparency of leadership and decision-making processes
- A culture of protecting the weak over the strong
- A culture of inclusion and collaboration with outsiders
- A culture of servant-leadership and true mutual submission
- A willingness to listen to inside and outside critique
He who wants to be first, must be the least of all.
Do we believe this? Or do we believe that associating with bigger, more prestigious groups will bring us value?
Ever wonder why those who experience systematic abuse and violence don’t jump when they get a chance for freedom? Consider the abused teen choosing not to reveal the abuse to an inquiring teacher but rather stays in the abusive home in silence. Consider the victim who refuses the help of a friend in order to leave a domestically violent spouse. What is the psychology that supports these responses to oppression?
Brilliant Mhlanga has written a short memoir of his experience of being from an oppressed people group in Zimbabwe. Under the guise of “independence” his people and his family suffered tremendous violence. Family members were raped and murdered in grisly fashion. He labels what happens a genocide (from 1980-1987).
Here’s how he describes the impact of this systematic oppression (emphasis mine, British spellings his)
The psychology of oppression, then, becomes a phenomenon derived from the state where the oppressed, given their existential experience, adopt the attitude of ‘adhesion’ to the oppressor (ibid: 45). Freire adds that under these circumstances the oppressed cannot consider their situation clearly and objectively in a bid to discover themselves outside the spectacles of their oppressor. As discussed earlier, the oppressed rationalise and internalise their suffering. Their state of mental warping makes them appear as walking symbols of conformity. Such conformity makes them reject their enlightened brethren whom they tend to perceive as ‘trouble makers’. To them anyone who advocates change of their state of being is likely to bring them more trouble, as they cannot know the likely outcome. They fear change. This is the state of people who have lost a sense of hope in their full potential without the help of the oppressor.
Notice some of the features of the oppressed:
- Identity tied to oppressor
- Belief that one cannot exist outside this relationship (fear of being in relationship, fear of not being in relationship)
- Internalize suffering (blame self)
- See those who would fight for their freedom as dangerous (the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t know)
- Reject change as dangerous
Now these features are not found in everyone who is abused but they are worth noting. Those who would want to help the oppressed must consider these challenges and develop interventions that do not automatically trigger the fear reactions. This might include,
- Identifying self-blame and raising doubts
- Giving freedom to control response to oppressor (not coercing leaving oppressor)
- Identifying possible future
- Validate change as scary
Quote: Mhlanga, B. (2009) On the psychology of oppression: Blame me on history! Critical Arts, 23:1,106 — 112