A stereotype is a preconceived, fixed notion, especially about a person or group of people.
Most of us are familiar with the ongoing danger of negative stereotyping. Over centuries, across nations and in communities, tribes and families, negative stereotyping casts people as unacceptable, disposable, evil and culpable by reason of race, economic standing, nationality, religion, age, gender, etc. The result is dangerous and deadly.
Overlooked but just as dangerous is positive stereotyping. Positive stereotyping presumes that by reason of looks, race, professional expertise, financial success or standing in society, someone is good, sacred, respectable, trustworthy and above the law. The result is also dangerous and deadly.
We have recently read of the reports of close to 265 female gymnasts repeatedly molested by Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar the “respected” team doctor. In his case, as in the case of other predators in scandals that have shocked and horrified us, the predator plays on the positive stereotyping. He hides behind the posture of the good doctor, favorite coach, beloved priest, famous producer or respected politician, etc. Sadly, his pathological denial of doing anything wrong dovetails with our need to confirm our positive stereotypes.
Abuse is Hard to Believe
Why did nothing happen to prevent the abuse of these female gymnasts, some as young as 6 years old, when there were allegations of Dr. Nassar’s abuse as early as 1997? Why did no one speak up when at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse?
The reasons are confounding and certainly include those who deny, cover-up and become complicit in atrocity for personal protection or gain.
In addition, many others unwittingly add to the nightmare by pushing back with the question, “How Could this be?” The question is understandable, the fact that we have a difficult time believing the truth because of preconceived positive bias is worth considering.
When Rachel Denhollander, one of the gymnasts assaulted by Dr. Nassar, became an attorney and filed the first police complaint against him in 2016 with documentation of the her abuse in 2004 by a nurse practitioner and medical journals disputing the Dr. Nassar’s abusive techniques, she reports losing her church, losing her friends and her privacy to a culture not willing to listen.
Why Won’t People Listen?
According to social psychologist, Leon Festinger, we strive for internal psychological consistency in our beliefs. When we are holding two beliefs that are in conflict, we experience “cognitive dissonance” which creates psychological stress.
“ How can a known and respected doctor be an abuser?
- To reduce the dissonance we often block facts that threaten our beliefs and double down on what we hold to be true.
- Psychologists consider “this doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence” as part of a set of behaviors known as “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is how we remain convinced of what we want to believe. Motivated reasoning drives us to ignore, avoid, reject or argue against information that confronts our beliefs.
Given the abuse perpetrated by famous directors, beloved coaches, trusted priests and respected politicians, etc., it may be time to tolerate the cognitive dissonance and loosen our positive and negative stereotypes. Stereotypes are are a threat to truth. They don’t allow us to see people without bias. As such, they leave too many children in harms way.
Children absorb the cultural and familial stereotypes. Much as a little child from another country does not know why she is the victim of grade school bullying, the child molested by the coach, doctor or priest is left bewildered, vulnerable, self-blaming and silent – How can this be? This is a good person? What did I do? What can I say?
Having worked with many victims of early abuse, I would say that to see the faces and hear of the sobs and shaking of the female gymnasts stepping up to face their abuser, is to know that what they are also facing is the re-emergence of split-off horror and pain, frozen in time and secreted away.
When people wonder why victims are so upset 15 or 20 years later, it is because with validation comes the terrifying realization that the stereotypical “ good guy” was really “ the bad guy” who violated body, mind and spirit. The visceral awareness of the dangerous place they have been is terrifying. Coming forward to bear witness, to join with others, is healing —but it is no easy task.
The voices of these brave gymnasts in concert with more and more brave voices of victims from every aspect of this culture are expressions that counter our stereotypes. They invite us to dare to listen for the truth.
We are starting to listen. We are starting to act. Listening and acting invite cultural changes. We can’t stop now.
Listen in to podcast with attorney Wendy Patrick and psychologists Vic Schermer and Bob Klein discussing “ Stealth Predators” on Psych Up Live.
Listen in to podcast with Richard Gartner ” Understanding and Healing Sexually Betrayed Boys and Men”