The Royal “Them”


“I don’t want to report anything because I’ll get punished for it.”


If I had a nickel for every time I heard or read this, I’d be able to buy a big coffee.  My response hit on two premises, both which are worth conveying here to the audience at-large:


1)  To report may incur further retribution, yes, sad fact of life.  However, to not report is to avail yourself of further punishment with no recourse.


Let’s review the simplified reprisal formula:

Member makes protected communication + Member is punished for making that communication = Reprisal


So, in the scenario where you don’t report anything, you have forfeited the key element which (in theory, at least, ugh) provides you legal protections against further retribution.


2) If you say nothing, you implicitly allow what happened to you to continue.

Before I was assigned to DIA, everyone told me it was a dumpster fire.  They were right.  But why is it all screwed up?  In part, because people accepted it.  They didn’t want to rock the boat, so they shrugged their shoulders, looked the other way, and continued on with life.  Translated: “I’ll let someone else deal with it.”


My friend recently recounted an exchange he had with a DIA colleague in which the coworker felt that my going to the press and outing the Agency was a poor decision.  My friend asked him how things have been since the article was published and the colleague conceded that many things, from atmosphere to operational support, had markedly improved in the last year.  My friend’s rhetorical concluding question: “and why do you think that is?”  Cue the light bulb.


There are a lot of factors in the DIA case at play here, especially with regards to people’s fight-or-flight decisions: groupthink, self-centeredness, fear, ignorance of the rules and laws that govern/protect them, etc.  From a psychological aspect, however, one of the more insidious yet impelling factors comes from findings resulting from Max Ringelmann’s “social loafing” experimentation of the early 1900s.  In the experiment, he had men pull on a rope individually, the force of which he measured.  He would subsequently add more men to the pulling team, each having already pulled on the rope alone.  He discovered that as more men pulled on the rope, the less effort they exerted than they had when they were pulling on it solo.  This was some of the first experimentation in the field of what we could now term “let the ‘royal them’ do it.”  The results demonstrated a near-direct inverse relationship summarized as such: 


As the number of people in a group increases, the individual responsibility that each individual feels to contribute decreases.


Here comes the double-edged sword of taking up a cause: people see you’re on it, you’re pulling that rope just fine (at least, it seems like it), so no need to pull it too.  Rather, perhaps more inline with Ringelmann’s findings: “Sure, I’ll help pull…but not that hard.”


There is a rather famous case which highlighted some of the psychological effects we’re talking about now: the case of Kitty Genovese, New York 1964.  Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was raped and murdered outside her apartment building while 38 witnesses watched or listened to it.  The incident brought “the bystander effect” to the forefront of popular psychology.  This effect is a “sub effect”, if you will, of a phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility.”  Robert Blagg, who authored a concise encapsulation of the phenomenon, highlighted an  important aspect of the diffusion effect which was definitely in-play in the DIA case: “a bystander’s decision regarding his or her personal responsibility to help may be affected by situational norms and expectations for behaviour.”  (Remember the DAS expectation of behavior: don’t rock the boat!)  The caustic formula you had in DIA could be distilled to this:


Oppressive regime which established social norms + Oppressed group’s diffusion of responsibility = Perpetual unchallenged abuse and toxicity 


An internal struggle I faced while I was collecting witness statements for the DIA case would occur when people would ask “how many others have come forward with {issue x}?”  Uff.  As soon as I read this I heard the warning bells going off…  So, two options here:


Answer 1: Cite the actual number

Potential result: Exacerbate the already-present effects of diffusion of responsibility.


Answer 2: Not avail the number of corroborating witnesses

Potential result: Witness then feels alone and doesn’t want to be outed/exposed by risking providing a statement which could be attributed to them.


So, what’s the right answer?  Trick question!  The answer is: we shouldn’t even have to be in this position!  In all candor, however, I typically opted for an amalgamation of the two: state that there are other people coming forward and not offer specificity beyond that.  I then would follow up with why numbers of witnesses was crucial (See “Tactic, Countertactic” for more on why).  Results were a mixed bag – some provided statements, others did not.  I was content with the outcome; in the end, the majority of people (defined as 51% or greater) that contacted me provided a witness statement.  If I had to put a hard and fast number to it, I’d say about 70% of people reached out eventually wrote something for the Congressional report.  (Footnote to this statistic – another very salient factor which came into play which I prefer not to delve into further here: some people did not want to relive the traumatic events of the past and hence forwent providing a statement).


The more germane question to be answered, I contend, is this: What percentage of victims of DIA abuses contacted me? …To be delved into by someone that isn’t me.  Did I just fall victim to “diffusion of responsibility” myself?