There's a common thread in two front-page news stories. In California, parents hid their severely abused children in plain sight. In Michigan and elsewhere, a doctor sexually abused teenage girls right in front of witnesses. No one did anything.
Why don't people notice what is right in front of them? Here is a list of answers:
1. A lingering belief, left over from agrarian patriarchy, that children are the possessions of their parents, rather than individuals with human rights.
2. A belief in "maternal instinct," which is translated to mean all mothers love their children and know what's best for them.
3. A mistaken faith in designated authorities and a corresponding lack of confidence in one's own judgment.
4. A mobile and transient society that is overpopulated and overworked and encouraged to spend leisure time with electronic gadgets rather than with other people.
5. The American tradition of individualism, which in contemporary society has been termed the "right to privacy"-- although no such right actually exists in the Constitution.
6. A tolerance of "difference" that has gone well beyond notions of equal rights to mean tolerance of pathological behaviors.
All of the above reasons relate to the horror in California. One neighbor thought that the children's bizarre nighttime activity must be some sort of therapy for special needs children. The neighbor believed the children must have a disorder that he, as a layperson, couldn't possibly understand, and he ignored the most obvious possible cause of the children's malfunction--abuse. Why would we be surprised--we live in a society that has given dozens of different names to children's disorders that obfuscate the fact these disorders are cause by abuse or neglect. Examples include "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," which is caused by maternal alcoholism, and "Oppositional Defiant Disorder," a fancy term for bad behavior in children that is caused by poor parenting or in some cases neglect or abuse.
Churchgoers, fellow students, college professors and neighbors didn't question why the family wasn't social, because we live in a society in which "entertainment" comes from glowing screens rather than human interaction. More puzzlingly, some ignored the extreme thinness of the children and in one instance, the fact one child wolfed down food when it was available. But in a society in which we are encouraged to celebrate different "body types" (note the "Fat Acceptance" movement) and any and every kind of diet, no matter how unnatural, the witnesses probably felt uncomfortable asking questions. (How far are we from an Anorexia Acceptance movement? Not far). Even failure to obtain basic medical care for one's children, such as vaccines against fatal communicable diseases, is considered acceptable in many circles. Increasingly, we live in a society in which questioning another's behaviors or way of life is considered "intolerant," "judgmental" or even bigoted.
No one reported Dr. Nassar because he was a highly respected and credentialed doctor (Reason #3). But credentials and peer recognition do not guarantee good ethics. No one believed the children because many do not believe that children, including their own children, possess judgment (Reason #1). Despite the fact that many parents cater to their children's whims and treat them inappropriately as friends, a condescension toward children persists in our society. There used to be an old saying, "out of the mouths of babes" comes wisdom, but like so many old aphorisms that represented the distillation of thousands of years of knowledge, it has fallen by the wayside in favor of credentialism. More incredibly, no one questioned why a male doctor would choose to specialize in treating adolescent girls. Perhaps many were uncomfortable asking this question, believing it would imply some sort of "misandry" (a word with which I recently became acquainted, via the internet). The fear of being called a bigot has become paralyzing (#6).
I honestly don't believe it was lack of compassion nor laziness that kept people from noticing and reporting what was right under their noses. It was the messages of our society that teach people that credentials trump common sense, that they shouldn't judge others' behavior, that parents know best and that no one actually doesn't love their children. None of these messages are true.