by Brian MartinAugust 30, 2018
How can you tell if an injustice is occurring? If the perpetrators are powerful, there are some characteristic signs.
In 1939 in Nazi Germany, Hitler authorized a program to kill people with mental and physical disabilities. Despite dictatorial powers, Hitler and others involved used five characteristic techniques to reduce public outrage.
First, the program was carried out in secret. It was coordinated through an obscure agency and never announced to the public.
Second, the targets—children and adults with disabilities—were devalued, so what was done to them wouldn’t seem so bad. They were called idiots and cripples and said to be “unworthy of life.”
Third, the program was explained as being different than what it was, as something more acceptable. The killings were called euthanasia, but far from being “mercy deaths,” they were simply murder.
Fourth, formal channels that people expected to provide justice gave only an appearance of it. After the war, German courts allowed most doctors and other killers to rejoin their professions with minimal penalties.
The fifth technique was intimidation: parents who protested were threatened with having their other children taken into state care or themselves being sent to prison camps.
These same five techniques—cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels, and intimidation—are found in all sorts of injustices perpetrated by powerful groups. They can be regularly observed in cases of sexual harassment, police beatings, massacres of peaceful protesters, torture, and genocide. Whether it is a sexual harasser or a torturer, powerful perpetrators try to hide their actions, denigrate their targets, and reframe their actions when exposed (“she wanted it”; “we’re protecting the nation”). They are usually left unsanctioned by formal authorities, while those who try to expose the problems face intimidation.
In an age of fake news, in which conspiracy theories proliferate and spin doctors try to turn public attention away from major problems, it is ever more difficult to determine what is going on. One way to gain insight is to look for signs of injustice: evidence of the five techniques that perpetrators use to reduce outrage.
Cover-up is a tell-tale sign. The Australian government has put asylum seekers who arrive by boat — most of whom qualify as refugees — in remote detention camps, including ones outside Australia in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where many languish for years. The government makes it extremely difficult for journalists to visit the camps, thereby preventing full exposure of the consequences of its inhumane policy.
Devaluation is commonly observed. Sometimes entire groups, such as immigrants or Muslims, victims of police brutality like Eric Garland, and undocumented children who are currently in detention facilities, are denigrated. Refugees arriving by boat in Australia are often called “illegals” even though seeking asylum is legal, or “queue-jumpers” even though there is no queue for refugees. Sometimes they are even labeled terrorists.
Reinterpretation is a multifaceted technique, involving lying about actions, minimizing their effects, blaming others, and reframing events, namely looking at them from a benign perspective. Australian policy on asylum seekers is reframed as being about border protection, portraying refugees as a security threat, even though many refugees are fleeing conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where Australian troops joined the original invasions that created a refugee crisis.
When a powerful group is exposed as responsible for wrongdoing, public outrage can be assuaged by using an “official channel,” for example setting up an investigation or initiating court proceedings. This reduces outrage because people think justice is being done, but in many cases the formal channels give only an appearance of justice. After the exposure in 2004 of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a number of US guards were charged with crimes. But no high-level officials, responsible for the policies that enabled torture, were charged. The Australian government officially adheres to the refugee convention but, to get around its commitments, in 2013 excised the Australian mainland from “Australia” for the purposes of the convention.
Finally, there is the technique of intimidation. The Australian government made it a criminal offence to reveal information about the condition of people in foreign-based detention camps. The brutal treatment of asylum seekers is intended to deter others from coming to Australia.
Understanding the five techniques can provide guidance for opposing injustice. For each technique, there is a counter-technique. The five counter-techniques are exposing what is happening, validating the target, interpreting events as an injustice, mobilizing support (rather than relying on official channels), and resisting intimidation. All these counter-techniques were used to stop Hitler’s program to kill people with disabilities, and they can be used against all sorts of other injustices.
Activists are familiar with methods of resistance. Thinking in terms of “signs of injustice” can help direct attention to what perpetrators are doing. Struggles over injustice are strategic engagements, so it is valuable to identify and understand the opponent’s tactics.
One important injustice is the use of violence against peaceful protesters. When this occurs, many people are shocked and dismayed, and this reaction can cause the violence to backfire against the attackers in what is called political jiu-jitsu or the paradox of repression. However, this reaction only occurs sometimes; in lots of other cases, perpetrators pay little or no penalty for their abuse of power. That is why it is important to be aware of the five techniques that reduce outrage and to be prepared to use counter-techniques.
This post is the first in an ongoing series highlighting the recent edited volume, The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements, (Syracuse University Press 2018), eds. Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey, for which ICNC provided funding and review.