How willful blindness enables child abuse

Imagine you're a 12-year-old competitive gymnast. Six days a week, you wake up at 6:00 a.m. and head to the gym for practice. Your coach trains you hard for five hours--pushing you to your limits and shouting at you whenever you make a mistake. If you get injured, it's as though you're in trouble. You face extreme pressure to get better as quickly as possible.

Your training is regimented; what you eat is strictly controlled; your sleeping hours follow a firm routine. Everything about your life revolves around the sport you've committed yourself to. For every decision you make, the first question is, "how would this impact my performance?" That's a lot of pressure for the average junior high schooler.

When you grow up in an environment like this, it's a breeding ground for a phenomenon known as "willful blindness." If something goes wrong, the adults in your life are inclined to look for excuses to explain it away. A gymnast is claiming that our acclaimed doctor sexually abused her? She must not have understood his treatment.

Willful blindness creates an extremely dangerous situation for a vulnerable child--particularly a child who has been groomed to believe they are not good enough. The tendency to unquestioningly trust the adult over the child makes a child afraid to speak up when something seems wrong. It makes them interpret abuse as normal.

In a previous post, we discussed the case of Larry Nassar--the former sports medicine doctor for Olympic gymnasts who was convicted of sexually assaulting 40 young girls. This tragedy is a chilling example of the willful blindness phenomenon. Nassar destroyed the lives of dozens of young children--an egregious offense. But the societal inclination to disregard cries for help from victims simply because of their age is equally distressful.

Brian McKeen--the attorney for two of Nassar's victims--holds that the adults and institutions these children trusted failed them. Victimized children should not be blamed for not understanding the full scope of their assault--or for being surrounded by adults who make them too scared to speak up.

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