Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” in some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.

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