The System and the Situation

Maintaining cognitive biases and willful illusions isn’t just problematic for our ability to reason – it’s morally wrong. A simple example can illustrate what I mean:

At the age of 9, Ethan Couch was still sleeping with his mother even though he had his own bedroom.

“Tonya has [Ethan’s] bed in her room and considers Ethan to be her protector.Very unusual,” Flynn said of that arrangement. “Very unusual, and highly questionable.”

The term “adultified” was used to explain that Ethan was treated as an equal, rather than as a child.

“This was a very dysfunctional family,” Flynn said. “Did not prepare Ethan for adulthood. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it has run its course this way.”

No matter what you happen to personally believe about Ethan Couch and his infamous “affluenza” defense, the fact of the matter is that his having been raised by a woman who wanted to maintain severe (possibly drug-induced) delusions rather than raise him properly clearly ruined his life. Ultimately, this ended the lives of four innocent motorists.

I’m not suggesting that their deaths were inevitable in light of Couch’s upbringing, I’m simply highlighting the fact that when we sustain self-delusions at the expense of other people, we’re acting immorally.

Of course, the matter of Ethan Couch’s dysfunctional family is cut-and-dry, and we don’t learn anything from stating the obvious. The real question, to what extent do we ourselves play the role of Tonya or Ethan Couch in our own lives, and who ultimately pays the price for this?

*        *        *

By now, readers must surely be aware of the recent allegations of sexual abuse by United Nations “peacekeepers” in the Central African Republic. At least seven women and little girls claim to have been raped, an allegation serious enough, and numerous enough, to lead us to believe that it is highly unlikely that these allegations are not true.

On some level, no one is really surprised by this. On some level, we all understand that “war is hell” and that the conditions of war almost always (or simply always) enable a rash of sexual abuse. This tragic phenomenon is thousands of years old, maybe as old as human civilization itself. It’s fair to say that the Situation of war is a direct cause of sexual abuse; meaning, if we want to guarantee that sexual abuse occurs, all we have to do is start a war. Period.

It’s important to note that sexual abuse has nothing to do with the reasons people or nations or groups wage war. That is, there’s nothing inherent in the politics of war that causes rape. In modern warfare, rape is not a strategic decision made by generals. It is not a planned and coordinated action by the military.

On the contrary, it is an emergent phenomenon of wartime social psychology. It happens in every war. The sexual abuse is committed, not by rogue scoundrels seeking to exploit a volatile background scenario, but normal, healthy boys and girls you personally know and grew up with. But for your decision not to enlist – or someone else’s decision not to deploy you to that particular war zone – the person committing these atrocities not only could have been you, but probably would have been you.

This is the profoundly important lesson of social psychology. The abusers went into the Situation as psychologically normal, moral human beings. In the Situation, they became monsters. Once removed from the Situation, they reverted back to their previous state, plus or minus the impacts of having experienced war firsthand.

*        *        *

Many well-meaning people will react to this information in a natural, but in my opinion, ineffectual way: They’ll call for rules and procedures to be put in place. These rules and procedures will help prevent the people in a bad Situation from falling victim to situational influence, and thus preempt them from committing sexual abuse.

What these people fail to understand is that rules and procedures are already in place (emphasis added):

“I will not rest until these heinous acts are uncovered, perpetrators are punished, and incidents cease,” the U.N envoy for Central African Republic and head of the U.N. mission Parfait Onanga-Anyanga said during a visit to Bambari, as Reuters reports.

He reminded the troops that “sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious breach of the U.N. regulations and a human rights violation; a double crime that affects the vulnerable women and children you were sent here to protect.”


Anthony Banbury, assistant secretary general to the U.N., said that there are around 69 confirmed allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation among the U.N.’s 16 international peacekeeping missions, for the whole of 2015, as reported by The Globe and Mail.

Peacekeeping missions are not anarchy. Rules and procedures designed to prevent chaos exist and have been implemented. These crimes are not a lapse in the execution of a perfectly designed process.

The process itself serves as a self-delusion. Its mere existence convinces us that

  • If we commit a crime against humanity, we were just following orders;
  • If we observe a crime against humanity, procedures were violated and transgressors must be brought to justice;
  • Their thus having been punished, justice is served and world is normal again.

In reality, nothing about this serves to actually prevent sexual abuse. This is just system we’ve cooked-up ex post facto to prevent an existential vacuum from opening up every time rapes occur on UN peacekeeping missions (or US wars, or sectarian uprisings, or etc., etc.); which is to say, every single time war is waged and/or peace is “kept.”

Every. Single. Time.

I’m beating a dead horse here because it’s important to understand that (once again, shout it from the rooftops) rape is an inevitable and predictable byproduct of war.

Once we understand that – I mean really understand it – that means we are no longer entitled to be surprised by allegations of sexual abuse. We are no longer entitled to believe that it was the bad behavior of a few bad apples. We are no longer entitled to believe that we had nothing to do with it or that our procedures are well-conceived and capable of addressing the problem.

As Philip Zimbardo has said, Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

It’s easy to believe that these situations are just too complex to easily solve, and that the best we can do is vote for the right people, who will implement the right procedures, which will solve the problem.

But, no. That’s just our delusion talking. That’s just the part of our brain that doesn’t want to acknowledge that the crime is a direct result of the Situation, and the Situation is a direct result of the System that enables it. To prevent these and other atrocities, we don’t need better rules written by better philosopher-kings.

Instead, we need to dispense with the delusion and confront the existential vacuum. We need to admit to ourselves that things like this don’t magically stop happening after election season is over. We need to acknowledge that Good Guy Candidate A was still powerless to prevent the Situation, which means our belief that he could is also delusional. We need to admit to ourselves that the System enabling this terror is the delusion we carry with us, the one that tells us that the rules can work, if only they’re properly implemented.

Then, and only then, will we be ready to make a real and productive change.

6 thoughts on “The System and the Situation

  1. This is perhaps one of your craziest posts.

    1) Rape happens — some groups of people will commit rapes at higher rates than others (see e.g. African peace-keepers vs. American/European troops);

    2) You are just flat wrong when you say “I’m beating a dead horse here because it’s important to understand that (once again, shout it from the rooftops) rape is an inevitable and predictable byproduct of war.” I would bet money that there were literally no rapes committed by American soldiers and/or coalition troops when we liberated Kuwait. I haven’t Googled this yet, but even if there were one or two rapes, then at best all you are saying is “when large groups of men move to another country, some will commit rape.” Of course, those men may have raped where they lived — we would need to know the ‘base rate’ of rape to begin with to make the more forceful claim that somehow war ‘creates’ additional rapists.

    I suspect the same is true of Panama and Grenada — short, quick wars. Likewise the British in the Falklands War — I doubt there was one case of rape.

    3) In some cases, where there is violence or a civil war going on (e.g. Afghanistan or Syria) it is possible — not a given, but possible, that the use of force, or war if you prefer, can actually reduce the incidence of rape. The destruction of ISIS would end countless Christians and other minorities from being raped. Likewise, the destruction of the Taliban (and friendly Islamic warlords) would end some large amount of child rape.

    4) In some (many?) situations during war men have taken advantage of the conditions on the ground to rape civilians. I can buy into this general idea but I’d want to examine the historical record in detail and again, I would bet lots of money that you find differing rates of rape based on population differences to begin with.

  2. Jeffrey S.

    Ha! You win that bet. But I still think the post is crazy 🙂

    Of course, reading that article reinforces the broader point I was trying to make:

    “In a 1989 Defense Department survey, 11% of Army men and women said they had been the victims of actual or attempted rape or sexual assault at the hands of fellow service members in the previous year. The survey shows the reported incidence of such assault–as well as many less violent forms of sexual harassment–to be slightly higher in the Army than in the other military services.”

    The article says there were 34 cases during the year long deployment, and that included everything from rape to “indecent assault.” 34 cases — and only three were foreign nationals.

    My point stands — you have a large group of men in an institution dedicated to fighting a war (whether or not a war is fought) and rape and sexual assault will occur. One actual reform that would help, at least with respect to reducing rape/sexual assault within the armed forces (these troops can still commit crimes when off duty) is to end gender ‘equality’ in the armed forces and return to an all male fighting force.

    I suppose you could also argue that we should end the practice of having large standing armies. And I would in turn wish you well as you argue for rainbow powered flying unicorns and other fantasies that make no sense in the dangerous, and fallen (i.e. man is bound to commit sins against his fellow man) world.

    1. HumptyDumptyPebbles

      Those are 34 reported cases, Jeffrey. And 31 of them are reported by US troops. There were likely many others, locals, who never reported anything for fear of retribution, or worse, such as death. Another war casualty, who cares?

      When you say “My point stands — you have a large group of men in an institution dedicated to fighting a war (whether or not a war is fought) and rape and sexual assault will occur,” it sounds to me like you are agreeing with StationaryWaves, while you said he was flat out wrong in point 2 of your first comment.

      StationaryWaves put a lot of thought into his post, clearly, thank you for that. While rape isn’t the worst by-product of war (innocent civilian deaths are), it is something that needs more visibility. However, during times of war/conflict, there is a level of dehumanization of the perceived enemy that is likely unparalleled elsewhere. Rape of the “enemy” becomes nothing more than another activity to show force and power, alongside the other wrong doings of war.

  3. TJ

    I thought that the points were well done regarding failure to understand the influence of the system and the limits of rules. Thank you very much for a thoughtful article

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