Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Strategic Choice or Desperation

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Why would a dictator gas his own people? The answer may not be what you think. In Syria’s brutal civil war it has been documented that there have been atrocities on both sides. One particular atrocity, the gassing of the civilian population with hundreds of children dying gruesomely stands out. The USA’s reaction to this has finally gotten Syria to admit that it has chemical weapons and though it denies being the source of the attack the evidence in the media is pretty persuasive that the Syrian government is gassing its own population. Syria’s denials take the form of logic rather than evidence. They pose the question, why would we gas people in locations where our own troops could be affected? That question presupposes that Syria cares enough about their own troops not to expose them to gas, which is a dubious assumption, but it is also misdirection from the reason why a dictator would conduct an act, that by generally acceptable world standards is beyond limits.

In order to explain, I need to turn to Africa, another area that has seen its share of gruesome atrocities and to explain the rationale behind an atrocity so gruesome that words had to be created to describe it. If this is at all disturbing to you, you should either skip the next two paragraphs or just stop reading here. Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times, (February 10, 2010), wrote about atrocities happening in Congo. He describes autocannibalism as “what happens when a militia here in eastern Congo’s endless war cuts flesh from living victims and forces them to eat it.” He goes on with an explanation as to why it is happening:

“… after talking to survivors and perpetrators alike over the years, I’ve come to believe that the atrocities are calculated and strategic, serving two main purposes. First, they terrorize populations and shatter traditional structures of authority. Second, they create cohesiveness among the misfit, often youthful soldiers typically employed by warlords. If commanders can get their troops to commit unspeakable atrocities, those soldiers are less likely ever to return to society. So don’t think of wartime atrocities as some ineluctable Lord of the Flies reversion to life in a natural state but as a calculated military strategy. We can change those calculations by holding commanders accountable.”

So in Syria’s case the commitment of atrocities by the government, is one way of Assad telling his supporters, there is no going back, we are in this to the end, for what we have done is so unacceptable that there is no place for us elsewhere (Russia not withstanding), we have to survive here. It is a clear message that he won’t abandon them, and they now can’t abandon him because they are now associated with gas attacks. It also creates a situation where reconciliation between the regime and the rebels is likely out of reach. The thought that Assad is acting out of desperation is likely in error.

If we consider these atrocities for what they are in their essence, they are a way of increasing internal group cohesiveness in the face of increasing external pressures. Governments, societies and other kinds of organizations have always been concerned about maximizing internal group cohesiveness. Though they don’t often resort to atrocities of this scale, but the psychology of the methods used in Syria are unfortunately a well-worn path.

Organizations by their very nature create a dichotomy, a split, between those on the inside vs. those on the outside. Even within organizations there are subgroups or subcliques creating a sense of us vs. them.  Only this week a story ran about the Harvard Business School which documented how wealthy students experienced a different Harvard than a typical business school student. An elite organization, Harvard Business School, was not elite enough for some, so a group of wealthy students created an even more elite sub-organization called Section Z within it. These students, the members of Section Z, would experience Harvard together, helping each other out, and presumably be there for each other during their careers.

Creating a sense of “we” vs. others or foreignness will increase the cohesiveness of the “we” and can create a sense of desire on the part of the others to become part of the “we”, part of the in crowd, part of the Inner Ring. This is even more so when the “we” has characteristics of exclusivity or generally what are perceived as desirable traits.

CS Lewis in a Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944 warns of the dangers of creating an Inner Ring, a subgroup of those on the inside, vs. those on the outside. For he said that there are those who will do anything, commit any crime, engage in any activity in order to get inside the Inner Ring, if membership in that ring is attractive enough.  He urged the students to resist the temptation of the Inner Ring.

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.”

Interestingly, CS Lewis challenged Sigmund Freud’s dogma that the sex drive is the strongest drive that humans have and suggested that the desire to be part of the “in” group the Inner Ring is stronger. All sorts of organizations including governmental and political, societies, including secret ones, religious groups, schools, for-profit, military, etc. have used this fundamental human characteristic to their advantage and at times to take advantage of their fellow humans. In Syria’s case the gassing of civilians enhances the cohesiveness of those in power and in the military. Some may reject that path and defect, but the vast majority won’t.

Breaking down long-standing barriers of what is acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviors will also, through the process of cognitive dissonance, cause those who conducted the atrocities to create justifications as to why those behaviors are now acceptable.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    If you are bewildered by how Trump’s cabinet can sing his praises while lurching from one scandal to another, this piece about the power and draw of the “inner ring” might help explain. From CS Lewis – Interestingly, CS Lewis challenged Sigmund Freud’s dogma that the sex drive is the strongest drive that humans have and suggested that the desire to be part of the “in” group the Inner Ring is stronger.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    June 13, 2017 at 7:42 am

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