Belief Persistence, Emotion, Hubris & Critical Thinking
Their Effect on Military Justice Reform Progress
Our minds feel as though existing beliefs are safe, whereas new beliefs represent potential unknowns, if not dangers. And emotion plays a role in that." - Steven Pearlman, Ph.D.
Political History: The low criminal prosecution rate of Military Sexual Assaults (MSA), in addition to traumatizing victims and families for decades, has called into question how well military ethics and critical-thinking skills are applied to finding viable solutions. Early in 2021, President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day Independent Review Commission (IRC) to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the current U.S. Military Justice System (MJS), identify inadequacies, and make reform recommendations. The expert thirteen-member IRC, chaired by Lynn Rosenthal (https://www.lynnrosenthal.com/about-me) - the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women - presented in June 2021 its 299-page report entitled "Hard Truths and the Duty to Change: Recommendations From The Independent Review Commission On Sexual Assault In The Military." It contained eighty-two (82) recommendations. Upon the report's public internet posting, four-star General Mark Milley acknowledged that "data shows we have not moved the needle enough to solve the problem" and converted to a supporter of military justice reform.
Define "Enemy": One reoccurring theme in the quest for military justice reform is: what constitutes an "enemy"? Every service member must swear to protect and defend against "enemies." As a matter of history, the phrase "foreign and domestic" was later added in 1861 to account for military service during the Civil War. The original intent was to safeguard the country against treason. Today, some argue that "domestic enemies" should include sexual assault perpetrators within military ranks. An Air Force Col. reasoned that MSA perpetrators "revolt against civil authority by committing criminal acts against other members of our service." Austin Lloyd III used similar language in his first directive as Secretary of Defense, entitled "Memorandum for Senior Pentagon Leadership, Commanders of the Combatant Commands, Defense Agency, and DOD Field Activity Directors" dated January 23, 2012. The subject line reads: Countering Sexual Assault and Harassment- Initial Tasking. Lloyd wrote, "I look forward to working with you as we defend the United States. But as I said before, the Senate Armed Forces Committee, we cannot accomplish that mission if we also have to battle enemies within the ranks. (Emphasis added.)"
On that point, Steven Pearlman, Ph.D., has served as a Subject Matter Expert, researcher, writer, and program designer for SHARP, a U.S. Army initiative for Sexual Harassment Assault Response Prevention. He works as the Content Director for nformd.net ("a new media company that provides sexual assault prevention programs to universities and the U.S. Army") and StudentSuccess.org. He also "founded one of the country's first and only academic departments exclusively focused on research on what critical thinking is and how to teach it best."
In considering the definition of "enemy," Dr. Pearlman stated, "one thing the military should think through is its conception of "enemy," which can be an equivocal term in this context. Certainly, it easily could deem anyone who commits a sexual assault as an enemy within, but a bigger part of critical thinking involves clarifying the question. In this context, the military might want to clarify the concept of "enemy." Whether the military definition of "enemies within" and "domestic enemies" retains its initial intent or evolves more broadly to include application to military sexual assailants and other instigators of crime remains to be determined.
Emotion and Belief Persistence: Another recurring and well-documented theme is decades of insufficient response to military sexual assaults, contributing to two other internal military problems: low retention rates and high suicide rates. Military assault victims are twice as likely to leave voluntarily and report a higher risk of suicide- both stemming from a lack of justice. I asked Dr. Pearlman what factors contribute to the apparent non-response of military leaders to such a severe problem.
"Two critical thinking factors rise to issue here: belief persistence and emotion. Belief persistence is the psychological phenomenon in which it is much harder to change an existing belief than to introduce a new one," said Pearlman. "Brains literally build neural pathways to support belief systems, and it is much easier to build a new pathway than overwrite an existing pathway. The reason is that our minds feel as though existing beliefs are safe, whereas new beliefs represent potential unknowns, if not dangers. And emotion plays a role in that."
A "same old thinking, same old results" mentality would be counterproductive and potentially very dangerous to society. Could leadership's fear of emotion incapacitate them from appropriately processing information about sexual assault? If so, then that is problematic since trauma in all its many forms tends towards an emotional experience.
Pearlman continued to explain, "When any individual becomes emotional, it affects the degree to which the neocortex—the reasoning part of the brain—becomes active relative to the emotional part of the brain. Unfortunately, emotions can overpower reason. Thus, military structures that hold the pre-existing beliefs that current structures are fine and might incur an emotional response to seemingly 'threatening' changes might not reason as effectively as they could otherwise. They'd be inclined to maintain their existing belief, and an emotional reaction would only reinforce that stance."
How will leaders adequately deal with post-traumatic distress or sexual assault trauma if their Achilles heel is emotion? Should leadership programs about appropriate responses to trauma, including PTS and MSA, be improved as well?
Recent IG Evaluation: Last Wednesday, on November 10, 2021, the DOD's Inspector General released another report, a 79-page missive called "Evaluation of Special Victim Investigation and Prosecution Capability Within the Department of Defense." Its stated objective "was to determine whether the DoD and Military Services complied with Federal law and DoD policy when providing Special Victim Investigation and Prosecution (SVIP) services to victims in response to incidents of covered special victim offenses." By definition, these offenses include military sexual and aggravated assault.
Decades of victims' testimony served as a predictor of the report's data. Report findings confirmed that Military Criminal Investigative Organizations(MCIO) "did not consistently assign certified lead investigators" and that none of the services consistently assigned "specially trained prosecutors" to cases they should have. In essence, the report offered recommendations on how the DOD, CID, OSI, NCIS, SAPRO, SVIP, and others must administratively, procedurally, and executively right themselves for justice to prevail.
Summation: In a system that prides itself on neither laughing nor crying too loud lest the enemy perceives them weak, the military can apply critical-thinking skills to identify when expressed emotions among colleagues and allies are appropriate- even preferred and necessary. War veterans empathize with other soldiers who cry, sometimes uncontrollably, as they recount wartime experiences. The same rubric must be understood about sexual assault victims. Like war veterans, sexual assault victims have wounded bodies and spirits that can heal when appropriately treated. Trauma's commonality remains emotional response. When belief persistence and hubris are set aside, military leaders can better respond to expected emotional reports of trauma in all its many forms. That personal, perhaps soon to be procedural, act facilitates military justice reform.
For military sexual assault victim support and resources:
For all sexual assault victims:
Educational Prevention & Intervention Programs for schools, corporations and instituions:
About the author: Judy McCloskey has researched and studied temperaments, psychology, post-traumatic stress and recovery since 1999, and MSA since 2010. Her portfolio website T43Media is expected to launch in 2022.