The Relevance of Sykes and Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization

As applied to the use of torture. First, a reminder (here as well),

The application:

Actually, in the denial of victims, I would think "who cares about terrorists" applies better.

And last but not least:

Indeed, the very existence of the legal memos wordsmithing formulations that would actually say "yeah, go ahead and torture" without actually saying so is a major form of rationalization "just in case". And the fact that such memos had to be issued over and over again clearly indicates that the people involved knew they were ordering torture or engaging in it.

There is probably a great institutional / organizational sociological study to be written about the bureaucratization of torture and its rationalization in the Bush administration, beyond the 1984 comparisons (which are eerie, though). But from what we already know, it is clear that torture had become instrumental to the internal purposes of the organization (the Bush administration), and not the pursuit of information to thwart terrorist attacks (just as we know that, in the USSR, torture was used extract false confessions as part of keeping the crumbling edifice of the statist apparatus up for a few more years) and to terrorize both the objects of torture and the larger global audience. After that, once permission was given, the actual torturers "simply" engaged in what Philip Zimbardo described in The Lucifer Effect.

In any event, Marcy Wheeler is doing a great job of going through these memos with a fine comb. Her series of posts on the subject (and her previous reporting on the Plame outing) are a must-read.

2 thoughts on “The Relevance of Sykes and Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization

  1. Fascinating. The “bureaucratization of torture” is a great term. It seems to have been dealt with only in fiction–like “1984”–even though it’s part of lived experience for many people on the planet. One of the effects of being subject to systemic torture is being de-voiced…so convinced that whatever you are/think/feel is worthless *and* that no one would believe you even if you told your worthless story, that you un-learn how to articulate your own experience.
    In the “home version” of this denial game we’re seeing on the pages of the WSJ, the same “neutralizatons” are trotted out by perpetrators of domestic violence to silence and/or discredit their victims. Witnesses to the abuse, who wish to absolve themselves of having to exert any effort to think or act based on what they’ve witnessed, *also* use these neutralizations: “it takes two to tango,” being the go-to phrase in most cases.
    The mind-blowing thing is that torturers, domestic and political, are so much alike in their behavior and language that it sometimes appears as if they’re all alumni of Abuse U (pun totally intended). I’ve been taking notes for years on evidence that domestic violence and political violence (e.g., state-sponsored torture and terrorism) are not separate phenomenona but exist on a continuum.

    • Brazil is an even better example of the bureaucratization of torture. I always remember that scene with the nice secreatary transcribing the screams and moans of the poor schmuck being tortured by the Michael Palin character.

      And I think what you describe can be folded under the category of “learned helplessness” which leads to an attitude of “who cares? No one will come and save me”… which leads to withdrawal, and therefore no information = torture sucks and doesn’t work (it would suck even if it worked).

      I guess, after my “patriarchy continuum”, we should have a “violence continuum” (from micro to macro) indeed. (I can’t wait to start teaching my new “sociology of violence” class! More materials than I can ever use!)

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