Friday, May 17, 2013

Notes on a Growing Scandal

"Mythology," literary theorist René Girard writes in The Scapegoat, "is the very best school in the training of silence." Myths, so considered, are stories told to keep concealed some truth; a myth can act as a dark blanket, wrapping up and hiding truth in its folds.

The myth gives us a sense of security, a sense of stability: in the early 1980's, the myth of GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) helped to make the burgeoning AIDS crisis a "gay issue" when, as we know all too well, it affected heterosexual and homosexual populations. In 2008, we saw the devastating result of the myth of the self-regulating market: misplaced confidence in the ability of the economy to achieve natural homeostasis blinded us to the catastrophic erosion of the market, leading to financial crisis.

Indeed, it seems that a certain mythology around the sexual abuse of the vulnerable has coalesced within the last thirty years. The "pedophile priest" has become a stock image, the butt of jokes and innuendo. While we all know clergy are not alone in having abusers in their midsts - doctors, lawyers, troop leaders, teachers, daycare workers all have been convicted - it remains remarkably easy to think of sexual abuse as a "Catholic" problem rather than seeing it as an enormously pernicious cultural problem.

Thus it is with great interest I have been following the unfolding narrative of abuse within the United States Military. The parallel to the sexual abuse crisis that has plagued the Catholic Church is uncanny: a culture of secrecy, the exploitation of power, a willingness to turn a "blind eye" to the indiscretions of a fellow soldier in the name of "brotherhood," greater concern for the institution's reputation than for the protection of an individual. A vow of silence binding involved parties together, a silence suffocating the voices of victims and perpetuating a culture of abuse.

As a society, we do ourselves a grave injustice if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the myth of sexual abuse as a problem of some other population. It is a deep and abiding cultural problem, a deeply troubling human problem, and until we begin to look hard at our culture, we will be continue to be enchanted by myths assuring us that it's a problem others have to face, but not us.


  • Myths acknowledge some sort of communal or cultural disturbance
  • There is an individual or group culpable for this disturbance
  • The culpable part is distinctive - something sets them apart from everyone else
  • The culprit behind the disorder needs to be expelled
  • Peace is restored to the community after the expulsion of the guilty party
If you've ever watched a group of children at play, particularly if they gang up against one of their own members, you can see this dynamic function. A kickball team is losing because of the fat kid so the team gangs up on him, expels him from the group, and finds a renewed esprit de corps, a revitalized morale, as a team. The team's identity is galvanized by expelling its vulnerable member, they become a team in the act of expelling a member from the team. 






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