Hope for Iranians in the French Torture Game
by SAM SEDAEI in Washington, D.C.
23 Mar 2010 00:32
The experiment paralleled a famous one performed by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which participants were directed to inflict excruciating electrical shocks on other "test subjects." Most of the recruits in that experiment similarly went forward, following the authority of doctors in white coats, even as they heard screams and pleas from the person in the next room that they thought they were torturing.
Psychologists have used the results of Milgram's experiment and others done since then to support the concept that, in contrast to the belief of many, it doesn't take a mentally deranged individual to commit horrific acts. Under certain social circumstances, it seems clear, any ordinary individual is capable of committing violence on another person. These circumstances often involve someone with an apparent claim of authority who issues the orders and a group of people who follow those orders. The more people who obey, the less likely it is that any single person will question the authority figure.
Many historians have referred to these experiments in explaining the atrocities committed by rank-and-file Nazi soldiers. The current situation in Iran provides another real world example. Following the eruption of the Green Movement, the world was shocked to find out the extent to which members of Basij and Sepah-e Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, were willing to use violence against protesters.
When one attempts to encourage Iranians to use proven nonviolent civil resistance strategies that have succeeded against the most ghastly dictators, such as Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet, many claim that the Iranian regime is different and cannot be affected by such methods. Similarly, many Iranians who are rightly mad at the regime believe that there is no point in trying to reason with and persuade those who are committing violence because they can never be convinced to side with the people. Some even regard the basijis as less than human, referring to them as "heyvoona" (animals).
But Iranians have a lot to learn from the French "Game of Death." While the highest levels of Iranian leadership may indeed be dominated by fanatics who can never be persuaded that they are responsible for atrocities, many of the foot soldiers who commit the acts on the ground are not intrinsically iniquitous. For the most part, they are average people from various segments of Iranian society who do what they do because of factors that largely fall into two categories: economic and sociopsychological.
The economic element that explains their behavior is quite simple. They often desperately need the paychecks and other forms of compensation -- such as bags of rice and roghan-e jaamed (solid cooking oil) -- that they receive from the government.
While Iran analysts often mention this economic imperative, they tend to overlook the many sociopsychological factors that can lead someone to commit horrific acts. Many elements in Iranian culture implicitly approve the use of violence to settle disputes. When students underperform in school, teachers respond with corporal punishment, and many men use violence against women in their own homes. These acts occur not just among basiji families, but in some of the most affluent and "progressive" homes in Iran. Chances are every Iranian can think of someone in his or her extended family who has engaged in this kind of behavior.
Fear also plays a huge factor. Imagine a basiji faced with an angry crowd screaming, "Mikosham! Mikosham! Anke Baradaram Kosht!" (I will kill, I will kill, that who killed my brother). Even if that basiji has not killed anyone himself, he begins to see his commission of violence as an act of self-defense. After all, he wonders, is there any chance that such a crowd would afford him clemency should they succeed in bringing change?
Another crucial factor is the respect for authority and pressure to conform whose power the French psychologists revealed in the torture game. When a member of the Sepah or Basij receives an order to crush the protesters with full force, and he is surrounded by others who are executing that order, the circumstances are ripe for him to follow suit. This does not mean that he is mentally flawed or cannot be persuaded. Understanding these factors, we can see that reciprocal violence is by no means the only way to achieve victory.
As the French torture game highlights the capability of normal human beings to engage in seemingly inexplicable behavior, it goes a long way to explain how members of the security forces in Iran are capable of committing acts of violence against their fellow citizens. Acknowledgment of this reality should strengthen Iranians' belief in the effectiveness of persuasion in making allies of even the most seemingly unpersuadable members of society. The focus should be not on intimidation and threats, but on reason and incentives.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau