3-03 Pyramid of Abuse and Culpability/Complicity


How Do Abusive Systems Get Going and Maintain Momentum? The “Pyramid of Abuse” Shows Us the Who and the How.

  • Roles at the Top: Perpetrators and Perpetuators
  • Start-Up for a Pyramid of Abuse
  • Roles in the Middle: Procurators
    • Extinguishers: Silencers, Diverters, and Negators
    • Reinforcers: Prompters, Drill Instructors, and Validators
    • Positive Conditioning, Negative Conditioning, and Good Cop/Bad Cap All In One
  • Roles at the Base: Four Types of Pawns
  • Looking at All Four Layers in a Pyramid of Abuse
  • Looking at the Scale of Accountability
  • Addendum: February 13, 2018

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How Do Abusive Systems Get Going and Maintain Momentum?

The “Pyramid of Abuse” Shows Us the Who and the How.

Systems are about how the parts in a set interconnect and make the whole more than the sum of those parts. And systemic abuse happens when people with self-serving motives or otherwise malignant intentions (1) use their power, prestige, relationships, and/or money to manipulate parts to take over the whole and (2) manipulate connections among parts to keep the whole under control.

Those are my definitions of systems and systemic abuse. (For more details, see 5-05 Institutional Dynamics 1: Systems and Systemic Abuse.) In this article, I’m taking these definitions to another level with this question:

How do authoritarian leaders and their toxic control systems get into power – regardless of whether it’s a culture of compliance, chaos, charisma, or competition – and keep it going?

My answer is the systems framework I call the “Pyramid of Abuse.” I developed this graphic illustration over a long period of time as a way to capture what I was processing from my experiences in hostile work environments and destructive organizations. It came together when I was able to see how multiple people play specific roles that create a system that benefits the few and keeps the many on a treadmill of tyranny.

Some of these roles are even played by people outside the organization itself. But, their complicity is a connection that builds even larger structures of control. I explore that some in 5-06 Institutional Dynamics 2: From Open System to Closed Industrial Complex. But for now, let’s look at what turn out to be top layers of role in a Pyramid of Abuse.

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Roles at the Top: Perpetrators and Perpetuators

Pyramid of Abuse: Perpetuators and Perpetrators

At the very top of this pyramid are Perpetrators. This is often a Dictator, who inevitably is some kind of controller, whether through traditional means as an autocrat, or perhaps through some less direct (but still authoritarian) tactics.

There can also be some kind of elite group in control. An autocracy. An oligarchy of social, political, or cultural elites; a plutarchy of rich elites. A kleptocracy of people who come in to drain the resources of the system.

An individual simply cannot establish social control alone. If a Dictator is going to perpetrate control, he/she needs others who actively help perpetuate it. I call those who support the Dictator(s) Perpetuators. This layer includes Enforcers, Commenders, and Beneficiaries. They usually get highly involved in protecting and/or promoting the Dictator. An individual can play more than one of these roles.

Enforcers mostly protect the Dictator. They shield him/her from scrutiny, turn away critics, and carry out his/her dirty work.”

They are often gatekeepers to the Dictator’s time and attention. Think of a bouncer at a dance club, security guard at an event, or a secret service officer for a high-level political figure.

Commenders use their own resources and reputation to enhance the identity and visibility of the Dictator. They recommend him/her for supposed (or real) qualities, and especially work to promote him/her as being trustworthy.

This is because trust is essential for people to buy into the idea of the Dictator as an ideal leader who will serve their interests. Without that dynamic, “entrustment” doesn’t happen, and the system of control falls apart.

A Dictator often develops a network of Commenders outside of his/her own organization. These inside-outsiders endorse the Dictator’s character, activities, books, social media campaigns, events, etc. This is part of a reciprocal arrangement. Now, I’m not against endorsing other people and their work, or writing a product review for a sales website. This is something quite different, because the motivations are power and avarice, and the actions prove insidious.

Typically, those who keep a system of social control going get something out of their involvement with the Dictator and his/her system. This usually is some combination of power, prestige, and prosperity. So, as close associates of the Dictator, they are all Beneficiaries of the system.

Nepotism refers to those beneficiaries in his/her extended family and cronyism refers to those in his/her inner circle of colleagues and friends. They’re generally “covered” with protection and promotion by the Dictator and/or the system.

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Start-Up for a Pyramid of Abuse

How does a Pyramid of Abuse get going? Here are general patterns I’ve seen, as I worked through multiple experiences of hostile work environments in businesses, non-profit agencies, and churches.

People with little or no conscience about right or wrong, and without compassion about how their actions injure others, either start up a system so they can control it from the start, or they get into an existing organization and “work the system.” They ingratiate themselves into roles of prominence, with the intent of staying on top and milking the position for all they can.

Specifically, Dictators give a false presentation about who they really are. Their projection – whether it’s soft and smooth, or authoritative and hard talking – draws into their orbit people who find that particular persona attractive. But, it’s pretense, not authenticity, even if they use personal stories of woe to get people to think they’re being vulnerable and transparent.

From there, those sucked into that vortex of false presentation tend to provide protection for the Dictator’s persona and/or promote him or her to others. They are now Enforcers or Commenders – at least temporarily. Some may end up there because the perpetrator manipulated his/her connection with them. Others may be there because they see through the façade and are in it for what they can get from their association. Either way, out of genuine loyalty or the self-serving appearance of it, they use their own position, relationships, and influence to cover for this person with a magnetic personality.

It’s difficult to break free, because they get something out of the arrangement. That makes them Beneficiaries. They trust the Dictator, or perhaps even get it about the scam but want to piggyback onto the Dictator’s power base. Many don’t use critical thinking skills as sharply. They make excuses for the Dictator’s flaws and failings. They justify why people should just lay off of him/her and not be so critical.

Even factual evidence documenting the Dictator’s wrongdoing doesn’t necessarily change the feelings that three kinds of Perpetuators have about him/her. However, it might, especially when their own reputation or livelihood is then on the line. And this may be the point where it becomes more clear whether the roles of protection and promotion of someone undeserving stemmed from Perpetuators being naïve pawns or intentional partners.

Earlier, we looked at two top categories of players in the inner circle of power: Perpetrators (Dictators) and Perpetuators (Defenders, Commenders, and Beneficiaries). They are central to how a system of social control gets established.

The two lowest layers in the Pyramid of Abuse are Procurators and Pawns. The are central to how a system of social control keeps going. (Originally I used the name Propagators for those I now call Procurators, since Propagators were the main ones to keep things going. Some of my blog articles use that term instead of Procurators.)

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Roles in the Middle: Procurators

Pyramid of Abuse: Procurators

In the Pyramid of Abuse, the layer underneath the top power-players consists of Procurators. I use the term Procurators interchangeably with functionaries for this category. The main tasks of Procurators involve connecting with Pawns and keeping them engaged. Procurators also deal with mundane administration and policing details. That’s why I chose the term Procurator – an older and longer form of the word proctor – because their job embodies two different functions for keeping people in line. A proctor for a test:

(1) instructs you on what you are supposed to do, and

(2) monitors things so you don’t do something you’re not supposed to do.

Historically, procurators were in charge of provincial taxation and finances in the ancient Roman Empire. Somehow, the whole idea of imperious imperial functionaries seemed a sad match – but apt – for those who administrate the reign of a Dictator, oligarchy, plutarchy, or whoever else dominates.

Details on how different kinds of Procurators carry out their job will help us see how the system works. And that will also help us discern when we or those we care about are being played as Pawns. Here are the two types of Procurators, how I’ve categorized them according to kinds of tactics, and parallels between their negative and positive forms.

I split Procurators into two categories: Extinguishers and Reinforcers. I based these on the tactics they use to control people who are at their level or below. Extinguishers use negative conditioning (like fear, insults, threats) while Reinforcers use positive conditioning (like niceness, affection, compliments). Sometimes one person applies pressure in both ways, a sort of good cop/bad cop routine.

Extinguishers: Silencers, Diverters, and Negators

Procurators, in their role as Extinguishers, ensure that peer Procurators and subordinate Pawns DO NOT exhibit whatever the system dictates they:

  • CANNOT say [Silencers],
  • CANNOT do [Diverters], and
  • CANNOT be [Negators].

Extinguishers carry out their work by punishing lack of conformity. Infractions result in punishment, which is also known as negative conditioning or negative grooming. Extinguisher tactics include actions like negative labeling, expressing doubts about someone’s loyalty, and threats and retaliations that instill insecurity. It might even include public exposure of “sins” and/or expulsion from the system through shunning or some other extreme form of discipline. These can motivate Pawns to conform, out of fear of being cut off from their connections, or fear of not fulfilling their moral obligations or social duties.

Reinforcers: Prompters, Drill Instructors, and Validators

Procurators, in their role as Reinforcers, ensure that peer Procurators and subordinate Pawns DO follow whatever the authoritarian systems says they:

  • MUST say [Prompters],
  • MUST do [Drill Instructors], and
  • MUST be [Validators].

Reinforcers do this by rewarding acts of obedience. This is called positive conditioning or positive grooming. Perks, compliments, and/or “love bombing” (attention from the social network) keep Pawns glued into their connections there. Reinforcers can even prey upon the desires Pawns have to do good and make a difference, and their commitment to moral and ethical behavior. So, giving Pawns a sense that they are contributing to something meaningful and important can prove a powerful motivation.

Positive Conditioning, Negative Conditioning, and Good Cop/Bad Cap All In One

Procurators police each other and Pawns with both positive and/or negative grooming. They may think they are doing something righteous, but they’re actually trapping people in a sick system. Either type of conditioning can make it harder for people to leave. Some people respond more to one type than the other; some to both. Toxic organizations usually have both, even if one type of tactic happens to dominate; either way, it’s still a hostile environment.

Part of what makes the parasitic organizational system even more insidious is that Procurators often fuse both roles in one person. In fact, one person doing a good cop/bad cop routine is how control often works out when there is systemic abuse. He or she acts as a good cop Reinforcer of what the system considers as “right,” and a bad cop Extinguisher of what it considers “wrong.” The unpredictability of which side will come out at any given time – soothing or slapping – is part of what can keep Pawns off-kilter enough emotionally to maintain this power game: Sometimes things do go okay, so maybe things are changing for the better. If I’m perfect, I won’t get called out.

Everything Procurators do corrodes people’s ability to discern for themselves, connect with others the way they want, and be who they believe they’re designed to be in their identity. In short, Procurators are directly involved in squelching the freedom of people in the lower half of the Pyramid of Abuse.

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Roles at the Base: Four Types of Pawns

Pyramid of Abuse: Pawns

Meanwhile, at the lowest part of the pyramid, are those who mostly get played: the Pawns. If not for their resources – money, time, and talents – a toxic system would not survive. Like all systems, it needs a constant supply of energy to keep it from falling into entropy. Without Pawns, there’s no one to be leeched dry of resources. Also, when Pawns can be motivated or manipulated to entice family and friends into the system, their participation also helps keep it going and growing.

Pawns may hold the fewest possibilities where abuse of power is taking place. But surely not all Pawns are the same. What kinds of Pawns are there? Over the past several years, I’ve arrived at a framework with four categories: Innocents, Loyal Opposition, Applauders, and Avoiders.

Innocents are truly ignorant of evil in the system, perhaps because they may be relative newcomers. But the organization needs Pawns as followers and for finances to legitimize and fund the Dictators. So, anything that can be done to keep the Innocents ignorant helps perpetuate the system. Still, they may exhibit discernment once they have more information, or if they observe or experience abusive treatment that shocks their conscience, compassion, or any complacency.

Loyal Opposition includes those who are aware of problems in the system – maybe even know about the extent of harm being perpetrated. However, they aren’t passive. They seek to challenge and change the organization from the inside.

Loyal Opposition can actually be in any layer of a Pyramid of Abuse. (I’ve only put them in the lowest layer in this graphic, to keep it from getting too cluttered.)

Being a Loyal Opposition member requires courage, which is commendable. But, I sense overall that the risks taken by challengers inside communities with a history of abuse may not yield much. Maybe it depends on how far along the deception and power-hoarding have gone. If these are still in early stages, then perhaps it is possible to intercept the corruption processes and transform the organization back to relative health. But otherwise, it just seems a matter of time before the control and isolation are too endemic to change much (if at all), and Loyal Opposition may need to consider becoming Outside Agitators.

Applauders are enthralled by charismatic Dictators and enamored with the prestige of associating with the organization. They earn a sort of vicarious status by being around celebrities. Blinded by adoration, Applauders only perceive and proclaim what they interpret as good in the systems. They purposely seem to stay oblivious to what’s bad, or find ways to minimize it. They also marginalize anyone who points it out.

For instance, I’ve heard people say things like: Isn’t so-and-so great? Surely you can see that. I don’t get why you don’t like it/him/her. Why are you bitter?

Avoiders are aware of obvious evil in the Dictators’ system, but refuse to challenge it. Maybe they overlook it, as if feigned ignorance or pushing down their own cognitive dissonance protects them. Or perhaps it is fear that keeps Avoiders in check – fear of reprisal, maybe even fear they’ll lose whatever seemingly positive benefits the organization offers.

For instance, I’ve heard people say things like: I can’t leave – all my friends are here. No one will know me if I go anywhere else. I’ve been here too long to leave.

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Looking at All Four Layers in a Pyramid of Abuse

Pyramid of Abuse (c) 2018 Brad Sargent

Click on above image of the Pyramid of Abuse to go to a full-page view.

The time has come to glue all these roles into place as a system, and review. Here is the full Pyramid of Abuse, with the parallel arrow for the Scale of Accountability.

I developed this system over the past few years of my thinking through many personal experiences of abuse – who created the systemic abuse, who kept it going, who suffered under it. I’ve introduced all the roles already, sometimes using different art images for the overall categories. And I have only a couple of additional points to make about how they all come together when there is systemic abuse.

1. Insiders/Outsiders in Interlinking Pyramids. Although I show all 14 roles as inside this organizational pyramid, I’ve seen similar functions played by people outside the organization – Commenders. They use their personal reputation and organizational resources on behalf of someone else’s pyramid. Often, these Commender outsiders to one pyramid are the Perpetrator-Perpetuator insiders to their own pyramid. The alignment of their pyramid with others is like links in a chain that form an “industrial complex.” (More on that topic in Chapter #12.)

So, Commenders may assist the nefarious mission of other abusers in multiple ways. Here are three I can think of:

  • They can promote the other pyramid, such as by endorsing the products of its Dictators.
  • They can protect it, for instance, by trying to silence  any critics of the Dictators or of their enablers who keep them propped up and in power.
  • They can partner with it, carrying out a public demonstration of solidarity in action.

2. Lower Echelon Tactics Get Used by Higher-Ups. The tactics used to squeeze Pawns into conformity can be applied by anyone in the top three layers in the pyramid. The higher up the people are, however, the less likely those actions are going to be done in public, or by them personally. They’ll find someone else to get the deed done for them – probably behind the scenes, unless a public shaming would seem to be more effective as a warning to the wider community. This gives the upper echelons more plausible deniability – that they neither said or did such abusive things themselves, nor did they order them done. “Surely those who did them misheard, misunderstood, and/or misinterpreted what I said.”

3. Higher Echelon Tactics are Not Used by Lower-Downs. The reverse is probably not allowed – Procurators don’t do what Dictators do, nor what Protectors and Promoters do unless they’ve gotten orders from someone in a layer above their status. Otherwise, they’re likely to get punished for insolence and insubordination, if allowed to stay at all. You can’t act like you own the place, when you’re actually a peon, and get away with it. (Unless, of course, this serves some secret purpose of the higher-ups.)

4. Differentials in Responsibility. Everyone who gets anything from the organization benefits at least a little – even Pawns. However, does that mean everyone shares the same moral or ethical responsibility for the harm inflicted by the system? I don’t believe so. But, that question is such a crucial point that it needed more development. From my reflections, the “Scale of Accountability” arrow emerged.

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Looking at the Scale of Accountability

This last point on differentials in responsibility needs some additional detailing. The Accountability Scale Arrow on the right-hand side is my way of injecting some initial interpretation about partial responsibility for abuse. This is still a work in progress, as this concept is complex. We’ll look at it in more depth in Field Guide #2, primarily using issues and illustrations from the Holocaust.

I find the Holocaust presents the most compelling historical situation that has already raised a range of questions about (1) degrees of responsibility for perpetrating or perpetuating evil, and (2) the resulting need for accountability, apologies, and activities to (3) implement repairs for the past and to (4) institutionalize prevention for the future. But, at this point, here’s how I distinguish between culpability versus complicity.

Culpability applies to insiders with higher level responsibility for setting the principles, practices, and purposes of the organization. These are likely to be Perpetrators or Perpetuators. They wield  the highest levels of involvement in what happens, and influence in how it is carried out. Therefore, they need to be held to the greatest account for their attitudes and actions.

Outsiders who are Commenders of someone else’s pyramid also benefit from this connection. So, as enablers of ongoing abuse and Beneficiaries of it, they hold a relatively high level of culpability. They are part of the toxic system, despite not being in the same organization.

Complicity applies to those with involvement and even agency in implementing system control, but at a lower level of responsibility than those at the top of the pyramid. They may be paid or volunteers, but their activities make them active accomplices. (Our words complicity and accomplice come from the same Latin root.).

To summarize, the middle to upper echelons – Procurators (Extinguishers and Reinforcers), Perpetuators (Protectors and Promoters), and Perpetrators – are direct agents of the system. They hold high responsibility (culpability) for systemic abuse. Pawns tend to be the equivalent of “accessories” to the actions. They are indirect agents of the abuse, and hold low responsibility (complicity). What does all this mean in terms of “accountability”?

Accountability is about more than determining fault or legal “guilt.” It’s about conscience, compassion, and moral/ethical responsibility for making things right when we’ve done wrong.

Individuals with any degree of agency in abuse should be involved in restitution – making things right when the system does wrong – to at least the degree of their level of culpability on the Scale of Accountability. Perpetrators and Perpetuators bear the most responsibility if the system is toxic. However, they generally seem the least likely to take responsibility to end the abuse and make things right. They’re too enmeshed in the tangible and intangible benefits the system provides. It seems to take something catastrophic for their conscience to be awakened and their compassion genuinely moved about the damage they have inflicted. That is, if their conscience hasn’t been completely seared and their compassion has been completely hardened.

Over the years in observing and documenting situations of abuse of power in religious settings, I’ve often heard former staff members and high-level volunteers accept responsibility for having directly participated in the systemic abuse. Mostly they played roles as Procurators – the mid-level people who condition others to stay in the system. Actually, they “got played” to play those roles. They often became involved with a church or ministry because of their compassion for people, and they typically seem to exit when they see the harm being caused and their conscience won’t allow them to stay. While they attempt to make things right if they can in their specific situation, I almost always see them committing themselves to do what they can in the future, outside the system, so the kinds of abuse they experienced and were complicit in does not happen to others.

However, the involvement in an abusive system by Pawns is relatively minor; to expect major acts of restitution from them seems like it is “blaming the victim.” But the accountability situation gets complicated because those victimized often raise questions about their own actions themselves. Sometimes their questions call for yes/no answers, sometimes they deal with relative degree answers.

  • Did I know what was going on at all? How much did I know about what was going on?
  • Did I ask questions? Did I ask enough questions?
  • Did I challenge the system people? Could I have challenged the system people more than I did?
  • Did I resist? How much did I resist?

So, issues about level of knowledge and level of resistance become tied to issues of culpability and complicity. This has happened historically at the macro-level with the Holocaust. Questions about how complicit this or that group or population was for what happened have arisen for decades. I’ve also seen it happen at the micro-level with churches where the seemingly uninformed “pew sitters” parishioners get called to account for keeping a narcissistic leader going by their presence and financial support. So – there is much to think about with responsibility and restitution, but I felt it was important to introduce it as part of the Pyramid of Abuse. We’ll look more in depth at these topics in Field Guide #2, Section #10. We will also use case studies related to the Holocaust to consider the range of questions that could and should be asked about the Scale of Accountability and appropriate remediation actions, and also use this to develop parallel kinds of Pyramids of Advocacy and Activism.

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Pyramid of Abuse (c) 2018 Brad Sargent.

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Addendum, February 13, 2018

I posted a link to this page on Facebook, and a UK friend noted how relevant it seemed to current news about the Church of England, which is facing a backlog of child sexual abuse cases that would indicate a large-scale and long-term systemic cover-up. She asked if I were prepared to give an introductory statement for those not yet committed to the full course — the entire training series I’ve been developing. This was my response, as expanded and clarified for a thread I posted on my Twitter account.

The Pyramid of Abuse is the *amuse-bouche* for the full course meal on identifying and dealing with toxic systems. Its ingredients give a foretaste of directions and directives, to answer system kinds of questions about perpetrators, propagators, and pawns.

WHO is doing the abuse? WHO is enabling it to continue, even covering it up?

WHAT dynamics have abusers and enablers co-opted?

WHAT tactics did they use to do this get away with it?

WHAT are real-life impacts on victims?

WHEN and WHERE must we report known/suspected abuse?

WHY was I susceptible to being victimized?

HOW do we remediate the damage done to individuals & institutions by abusers and their enablers?

HOW LONG, oh Lord, will systemic abuse continue until society & Church say “Time’s up”? Link to “full menu.”

2 thoughts on “3-03 Pyramid of Abuse and Culpability/Complicity

  1. I will be developing the “Range and Roles of Resistance” in Field Guide #2 of my training series. (The “Pyramid of Abuse” is central to Field Guide #1 on identifying abuse, and Field Guide #2 focuses on recovery for survivors, and dealing with malignant people and toxic organizations through advocacy and activism. So, I don’t have much posted about resistance yet. Here are some initial thoughts that might help spark thinking about the topic of “Outside Agitators.”

    It’s been my observation that those who have been in the Loyal Opposition inside an organization and then determine to leave go one of three ways:

    (1) Withdraw from any involvement in similar organizations, and often step back from their former identity — sometimes temporarily to recuperate, sometimes permanently due to rejecting what/who they were. In terms of the latter, think of the so-called nones, dones, and gones.

    (2) Become a personal advocate who provides support and encouragement to survivors of abuse. Some work with people who are still in their former organization or who are survivors of abuse who’ve left it (or been expelled). Some pursue training for related professional roles, such as pastors, counselors, social workers, etc.

    (3) Become a social activist about abuse issues generally (looking at patterns of malignancy and toxicity and how they apply across issues/situations of abuse), or focused on countering the abuse in their former organization specifically. Depending on personal giftedness and interests, this could take the form of working in the realms of politics and power, or with writing and information/investigations, or with developing healthier organizations. All of these are types of “Outside Agitators,” but when I first wrote about that term, I was thinking especially of those who work to counter the specific organization or its larger power structures. Think of them as “Anti-Commenders” — the sort of reverse role to an organization’s Commenders (who can function from within the organization, or from another organization with parallel interests and/or personal connections to the authorities in the other organization).

    So, “agitation” can take multiple forms. Also, sometimes insider and outsider Loyal Opposition people have a combination of roles — personal, informational, organizational — or shift roles over time. It all depends on the person, their abilities, opportunities to serve survivors, and their level of personal recovery from traumatic experiences.

    Hope that’s of help in starting to think about what it could look like for a person who’s been an organizational insider, come to oppose abusive practices in it, and eventually ended up as an outsider — but with experiential knowledge of at least some of the inner workings of that organization.

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