A Phil-for-an-ill Blog

December 11, 2008

Five Steps to Tyranny


Producer: Adelene Alani

Five Steps to Tyranny tells the story of how human nature allows us to descend into a barbaric society. A primetime documentary film for the BBC’s Human Rights Human Wrongs series. Source

To implement tyranny, the aspiring tyrant should do as follows:

1. ‘Us’ and ‘them’: use prejudice to foster the (fictional) notion of the existence of superior and dominant in-groups and inferior and powerless out-groups.

Notes: The program shows a primary school teacher do a miniature sociological experiment with her pupils (all White). She successfully and instantly creates a prejudicial segregation between her blue eyed pupils and her brown eyed pupils, insisting that the former (in-group) are “better” than the latter (out-group).

I think the reason why the experiment was so overwhelmingly successful has to do with the level of self-confidence the youngsters have. They are typically insecure, vulnerable and easily manipulated. Because of their gullible nature and their self-perception of inferiority they tend to welcome any opportunity to feel better about themselves to get ahead of their juvenile predicament. So when the teacher declares that one group is above the other, even though it is but an experiment with a fictional basis, the so deemed dominant in-group eagerly acts on it all the while at the expense of the dominated out-group who’s members quickly sink lower in self-esteem.

It is worrisome that members of the in-group shows instant hostility towards members of the out-group, and seem to be reluctant of showing compassion or sympathy with members of the out-group. This ruthless hierarchical behavior, as opposed to egalitarian behavior, seems strongly reminiscent of behavior also seen in the animal kingdom.

Unfortunately, as the documentary also showed, the possibility of creating in-groups versus out-groups is not limited to children, who are naturally inclined to feel as lesser beings compared to other age-groups (adolescents and adults). I would suggest that basically the sufficient condition for this animalistic sense of segregation, is the existence of widespread sentiments of inferiority and low self-esteem among the population distinct classes are to be drawn from.

Examples in history abound. Germany was in the middle of a depression when a tyrant overwhelmingly victoriously emerged. The Nazis embody an excellent example in which in-groups and out-groups are successfully created. Nazi ideology meant discrimination between the Aryan Indo-Europeans (the Master-race, “Herrenvolk” or “uebermenschen”) as the favored in-group, versus all other “races” (Subhumans or “untermenschen”), by necessity and intention, deemed inferior. Most of us know what cataclysmic and horrific events flowed from this German Nazi “in-group”.

Germany however was not the only country in which Nazi ideology held sway. The WWII region of former Yugoslavia poses another example. The German Nazis regarded the Slavs, in particular the Slavs of Eastern Europe, to be inferior to their own Aryan heritage. The yoke of inferiority must have weighed rather heavy on the Slavs. This collective sense of Slav inferiority changed however with the advent of Ante Pavelic who formulated a specific racist doctrine that declared, based on a pseudo-scientific argumentation, that the Nazi Croats were of superior stock as compared to the Non-Nazi Serbs:

To head this new government Hitler and Mussolini installed Ante (Anthony) Pavelíc. The two major groups in Pavelíc’s new state were the Serbs and the Croats. Both of these are ethnic South Slavs and they even share the Serbo-Croatian language. However, Pavelic was not one to sacrifice his racist ideology to ethnic or linguistic facts. Shortly before he came to power he published “a Croat lexicon, cutting out all ‘Serb’ words, an ambitious task, since the languages are almost identical”. [2] Pavelíc even maintained that the Croats were completely unrelated to the Serbs. He informed the Catholic Croats that they were “Aryans” (Ancient Goths, no less), and that the Orthodox Serbs, alone were “Slavs”, which made them, in the Nazi scheme, “Untermenschen”. Source

Consequently, a genocide engulfed Croatia wiping out some 750 thousand Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The in-group, out-group separation had worked well.

2. Obey orders: insist that all people under your wing are to obey your orders.

Notes: Where are the boundaries to obedience? Authority figures add to the tendency to obey. Acting without thinking lies at the heart of the emergence of tyranny. Over the course of history there have been more crimes committed in the name of obedience than disobedience.

3. Dehumanize the enemy: emphasize on making inimical factions look  less than human.


Notes: People tend to readily obey commands even when it goes against their conscience. People obey if their superiors take up responsibility and blame for any possible negative outcome. It is easier to do harm if the target is seen as less than human (e.g. like animals). “When you kill rats, you don’t spare their babies” said a Tyrannical leader in charge of massacre of the Tutsis.

4. ‘Stand up’ or ‘stand by’: suppress dissenting or opposing opinions to your own.

Notes: Suppression of all rebellion and dissenting opinion is the hallmark of tyranny. “Evil thrives when good men do nothing.”

5. Suppress Individuality: foster the development of group identities while suppressing the individual.


Notes: The oppressor takes on group identity so that his thoughts and actions are entirely defined by the role played out rather than those of the individual. The responsibility of acts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ (extermination of rival or inferior factions) is thus distributed over the group, in general, and its leadership or staff in particular. A lack of responsibility makes way for irresponsible actions to become a reality, quite literally.

Regarding sadism going on prisons, I think the fear factor should not be forgotten. Prison guards, by definition, have to deal with criminals, some of which are dangerous and hardened. Nonetheless, the guards must be able to gain and maintain a sufficient level of supremacy over the prisoners. As a consequence, a tension between the guards and prisoners exists which may erupt in the realization of atrocities that either victimizes prisoners or guards. Since the latter have legal supremacy, prisoners are most likely to be victimized but in case guards are victimized this may fuel over-compensatory acts of sadistic retribution in which prisoners are ‘dealt with’ more than they deserve. In addition, otherwise innocent and rule-abiding prisoners may be drawn in and victimized by unwarranted sadistic behavior on the part of the guards.

Role-play (“just doing one’s duty/job”) comes in handy as it may serve to obfuscate the need for guards to express regret or have conscience problems for the extra unnecessary hurt they cause. They may reason away their sadistic behavior by arguing  that the prisoners simply have brought it on themselves and deserve to be treated the way they were, even as degrading as animals.

In addition, it is taboo for guards to show emotions of fear and weakness in front on the prisoners as it might set them up as their target. This further reinforces the guards to find sanction in role-play only to further stiffen their attitude towards the prisoners. Also the imperative not to look foolish or incompetent in front of one’s colleagues further cements guard group-identity and group-conformity.

All these group-identity encouraging mechanisms go ever at the expense of individuality and behavior that would be considered humane and fruits of a caring and responsible human being.

Closing program notes:

“We could be led to do evil deeds. […] To become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds. […] And to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.”

Video References:

Quiet Rage: Stanford Prison experiment

The Stanley Milgram Experiment – Obedience (5 parts)

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