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Updated 25 April 2016

Oscar’s weird followers live in a fantasy world

Cybershrink analyses why some people have elevated Oscar Pretorius to a cult figure, making him the centre of their universe.

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Are the boring Pistorians transforming into a cult? At the recent hearing to postpone his sentencing, this odd bunch of people again emerged, like snails after the rain.

They must have to take time off work (if they actually do work) and their appearance must have cost them money, like the women claiming that they came from abroad.  Why do they do this?

A complete accident

We’ve seen the group change slightly, but never departing from their insistence that their hero is innocent and greatly wronged. He did nothing wrong, and if he did, it was greatly exaggerated. Riva’s killing was a complete accident; he never intended any harm and nothing was his fault. 

As they struggled to accommodate the shocking evidence of the destruction caused by their idol, and the appalling failure of the series of dismal defence witnesses to prove his innocence, they increasingly reminded me of how doomsday cult members handle the problem when the Apocalypse doesn’t happen as proclaimed.  

They remain a small group, though they claim much larger numbers belonging to several web-groups, and followers or supporters of these.  Of course, such numbers are not verifiable, and probably include recounts of the same people who “like” posts at every opportunity.  

There was the usual majority of weary looking older ladies, a couple of men, and a dapper and flashy politician, the President of the South African Prisoners’ Unemployed Political Party. (After the next elections there could well be some other Unemployed Political Parties, but I’m not yet clear on whether you would need to be an unemployed prisoner to join.) 

Read: How CyberShrink could win the election

The theme of the demonstration was a little confused. They proclaim that Reeva’s death was “a tragic accident”, but also insist that Judge Masipa’s verdict was correct, even though she didn’t consider the death accidental.

They seem to latch onto some phrases as though merely uttering them settles everything.  Several insisted this has been “a trial by media”, which just isn’t true. The trial was shown on TV and widely reported, but that’s not trial by media.  The verdict was made independently by the court, and the judge seems to have totally ignored the media.

Call in the United Nations!

The most ridiculous proposal was from the International Supporters for Oscar Pistorius (why for and not of?), based in the UK, shaky English and all. They launched an online petition to the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights – a long and garbled document making untenable claims. Yet many people appear to be signing it. 

If you really want to know what they’re muttering about, it’s truly bizarre and twisted.  They call this the biggest miscarriage of justice in the history of South Africa, clearly considering things like apartheid trivial compared to the fate of their footless friend. Some women prayed outside the court before the bail hearing.

Read: Oscar: why the sick jokes?

Some of the online comments of the group, some calling themselves Oscar’s Angels, are terribly sad, like this one: “Oscar, I have not achieved much in my life, unlike you. If I can in any way help to achieve justice for you, it would be good enough for me. It would give meaning to my life.” Some people have produced artworks eerily similar to religious icons, with one artistic member publishing numerous depictions of the hero at his athletic peak.

What I found truly obscene was a woman wearing a placard around her neck saying “Je suis Oscar”.  What an insult to the innocent victims of terrorist attacks for whom that format was devised – using it in praise of a killer. But it serves to demonstrate the pathological degree of over-identification with the person the group is focusing on.

Another British woman posts: “I am totally heartbroken that this had to happen to you. You have brought such joy to the world and have now suffered some of the worst kind of pain.  It is all just so wrong ... I do not know you, but it is obvious from your words and deeds that you are a good and just man.” 

One can clearly see the typical idealising of the central figure, the exaggeration of his plight, and profound sense of outrage at how he has been treated. 

Developing a cult

The word cult describes a form of organisation. As a cult develops, we see increasing identification with its central figure, with a degree of de-individuation of the members – “we” rather than “me”. They share social activities, but ones designed to further the aims of the group, rather than simply having fun. They tend to separate themselves from the rest of society which doesn’t share the members’ obsession, and move towards this internal society, a new family which meets their need to feel important, and correct. 

Read: Health24 users' strange obsessions

They hold to their own interpretations of reality to the exclusion of those shared by most ordinary people. They start to actively seek more members and supporters (which helps them to feel more secure in their own beliefs). People who disagree with their views tend to be regarded as wicked, rather than just mistaken.

When the flying saucers don’t arrive

They remind me of the group studied in the brilliant 1956 book “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger. He introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance, so well-illustrated in the Oscar petition. The theory says that when prophecy fails, faith continues.

When you have a very strongly held conviction, and meet evidence that disproves it, rather than give up your fond belief, you challenge and try to discredit the evidence. You try to convince others that you’re right by assertion, not evidence or reason.

Festinger studied a small group of followers of a Mrs Keech,  in the Midwest, who believed that much of the USA was about to be destroyed in a huge flood, and only the few faithful would survive, rescued by space ships. Colleagues joined the group and watched how the members responded when there was no flood and when none of her later predictions happened either. Some left the cult, concluding that they’d been mistaken, and the rest persuaded themselves that they’d prevented the flood by their faith and prayers.

Read: Faith could not save snake-handling preacher

There’s an element of this in the way remarkably many people continue to vote for Zuma’s ANC, even though it has conspicuously failed to achieve what it has repeatedly promised to do for them. They refuse to even contemplate the obvious and tempting conclusion that the promises were false or deluded or to look for a different way to get things put right. Their faith cannot possibly be misplaced – others must have prevented it from happening.

The garbled petition

The grammar is semi-literate, and the claims wildly exaggerated or distorted. They firmly believe Oscar’s rights have been violated and that he has been discriminated against because of his disability. The truth, however, is that the courts never in any way ever discriminated against his disability. What these people are in fact complaining about is that the court failed to discriminate in favour of him because of his disability – something they’re not supposed to do and is not contrary to any rights or laws.  

They’re also fiercely attacking Nel, the prosecutor. Their outrage seems to be that Nel made some comments during the trial suggesting that Oscar might be lying, something that’s far from unusual within trials. It doesn’t even remotely constitute “repeatedly fabricating false evidence to make the accused look guilty” and there’s no proof offered of anything like false evidence.  

Nothing any lawyer says in court is evidence, ever. When the accused makes contradictory statements where both versions can’t be true, it isn’t outrageous for a prosecutor to suggest lying may be involved.  

Their complaints about human rights violations are so awkward that they’re hard to follow. They insist that various violations “have been activated”. “Violations being activated” is not an argument; it isn’t even correct English. Without substantiation they also talk about “prosecutor’s inhumane treatment”.  They state someone (presumably Oscar) was “subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.  When and how?

Read: We, the broken people of South Africa

Some of their comments are too inarticulate to follow. They seem to be claiming that he was found guilty of something that wasn’t a “penal offence” under law, nor can a penalty be imposed heavier than that applicable when the offence was committed.  What on earth is that about? Then they insist that “no person should be discriminated”!?  

An anthology of errors

They seem to be insisting that Oscar, despite his very expensive team of top lawyers hadn’t the faintest idea what his rights were, and so couldn’t claim that they be respected. What a profound insult to Roux and his team! 

Weirdly, they refer to “the new” murder charge, though there’s no such thing. He was charged with murder from the start – nothing new about that! Because the judge misinterpreted the law, she found him not guilty of murder and guilty of culpable homicide, and a larger, much higher and wiser court corrected her mistakes and confirmed that his offence was indeed murder. 

The petition is an anthology of errors.  It states that the SA Constitution “includes a plethora of international treaties”, which is utter nonsense.

Read: The Constitution and the legal framework

They insist that: “Under the provision of the Criminal Procedures Act the State had no right of appeal against a decision of a Criminal Trial Court.” If this ludicrous claim were true, what on earth would the SCA do all day?

They then try to drag the rest of us into it. If Oscar can be so awfully treated, “then what chance for the ordinary South African citizen?” Pretty good, actually, especially for those of us who refrain from shooting people in our loos

They say, “Dolus eventualis (intent) has become a severe reality and used as an excessively careless excuse as a judgement tool." What on earth does that mean? Then they rant that “live broadcast of the entire trial … continues to date”, almost three years later. I must be missing something – on what channel is this secret trial still being broadcast?

Deep in the realm of fantasy

They introduce brand new medical evidence, claiming that Oscar suffered severe PTSD and depression “while under the combative and extremely aggressive manner …of… the State Prosecutor”.  Such a diagnosis is impossible, and contradicted by all competent examinations of Oscar.

They claim Nel’s “intimidation and ridicule” of defence witnesses prevented other witnesses from testifying – a very convenient excuse for which not a shred of evidence has ever been offered. They claim when Oscar got upset in court he was “again subjected to abuse and ridicule by the watching media”, something which the video proves never happened, and which Judge Masipa would never have allowed.  We’re deep in the realm of fantasy here.

Read: Judge Masipa 'reads' Oscar's mind

What, other than fantasy, is this? “Arrival of known felons inside the trial court on day of sentence 'selectively' used to intimidate the applicant and his family.”  At that stage, what on earth would be the point of intimidating them?

They call for “leniency” for Oscar, and for the UNHCR “to put a stop to this on-going gambit by the State”. 

They say his options are (1) to petition the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal. Wouldn’t Mr Roux have already done this if he thought it useful?

But option (2) is ludicrous madness: “Judge Masipa will find that the original sentence given by her previously was fair and will keep to it.”  Do they really expect her to break and ignore the law, and single-handedly overthrow the unanimous decision of all the judges of the SCA?

Note: Views expressed by our columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Health24.coor 24.com

Read more:

Do you hope Oscar is innocent, or do you need him to be innocent?

Why we are so glued to the Oscar trial

All said and done, we still don't know WHY Oscar shot Reeva

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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