My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.
Why do good people, churchgoers, pillars of the community, salt of the earth, why do these good people ignore abuse and neglect, even when it is on their doorstep, in their proverbial backyard?
Do they overlook abusive conduct in hospitals, orphanages, shelters, prisons, and families?
Well, a major reason is that it is very difficult to tell apart the abuser and his victim.
In a seminal essay titled Understanding the Badger in Visitation and Custody Disputes, Lanti Bancroft summed it up.
Bathers adopt the role of a hurt, sensitive man who doesn't understand how things go so bad and just wants to work it all out for the good of the children.
The abuser may cry and use language that demonstrates considerable insight into his own feelings. He is likely to be skilled at explaining how other people have turned the victim against him and how she is denying him access to the children as a form of revenge. He commonly accuses her of having mental health problems and may state that her family and friends agree with him, that she is hysterical and that she is promiscuous.
The abuser tends to be comfortable lying, having years of practice, and so can sound believable when making baseless statements. The abuser benefits when professionals believe that they can just tell who is lying and who is telling the truth, and so fail to adequately investigate his claims.
Because of the effects of trauma, the victim of battering will often seem hostile, disjointed, and agitated, while the abuser appears friendly, articulate, and calm. Evaluators are thus tempted to conclude that the victim is the source of the problems in their relationships.
So this is the first reason why people overlook abusive conduct. They simply don't know who is the abuser and who is the victim, but there are other reasons.
First, there is a lack of clear definition. The word abuse is so ill-defined and so open to culture-bound interpretation that no one really understands where it starts and where it ends.
We should distinguish functional abuse from the sadistic variety. The former is calculated to ensure outcomes or to punish transgressors. It is measured, impersonal, efficient, and disinterested. The latter, the sadistic variety of abuse, fulfills the emotional needs of a perpetrator and is very passionate.
This distinction is often blurred. People feel uncertain and therefore reluctant to intervene. The authorities know best, they lie to themselves.
Then there is a general human propensity to avoid the unpleasant. People, even good people, tend to avert their eyes from certain institutions which deal with anomalies and pain, death and illness. They tend to skirt the unsavory aspects of life which no one likes to be reminded of.
Like poor relatives, these institutions and events inside them are ignored and shunned. There is a common guilt. Even good people abuse others habitually.
Abusive conduct is so widespread that no one is exempt. Ours is a narcissistic and therefore abusive civilization.
People who find themselves caught up in the grip of narcissism, for instance, soldiers in war, nurses in hospitals, managers in corporations, parents or spouses in disintegrating and dysfunctional families or incarcerated inmates, tend to feel helpless and alienated. They experience a partial or total loss of control over their lives. They are rendered vulnerable, powerless and defenceless by events and circumstances which they feel are beyond their influence.
So abuse amounts to exerting an absolute and pervasive domination of the victim's existence. This is a coping strategy employed by the abuser. He wishes to reassert control over his life and thus to re-establish his mastery and superiority and abuse is the way to do that.
By subjugating the victim, the abuser regains his self-confidence and regulates his sense of self-worth.
So abuse is a catharsis. Even perfectly normal and good people, for instance, witness the events in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Even perfectly good and normal people channel their negative emotions, pent-up aggression, humiliation, rage, envy, diffuse hatred and they displace these emotions onto the victim.
The victims of abuse become symbols of everything that's wrong in the abuser's life and the situation he finds himself quoting.
The act of abuse amounts to misplaced and violent venting.
There is also the wish to conform and to belong, the ethics of peer pressure.
Many good people perpetrate heinous acts or refrain from criticising or opposing it all. Why do they do that? They behave this way in order to conform.
Abusing others is their way of demonstrating, of serious obeisance to authority, to affirm their group affiliation, their colleagueship and adherence to the same ethical or unethical code of conduct and common values.
Such good people who become abusers bask in the praise that is heaped on them by their superiors, fellow workers, associates, teammates or collaborators.
We have seen that during the Holocaust when perfectly normal accountants, lawyers, musicians, middle class, average, normal people became SS guards and exterminators in the gas chambers. They wanted to belong, they wanted to conform, they wanted to be praised. Their need to belong is so strong that it overpowers ethical, moral or legal considerations. They remain silent to face a neglect of use and atrocities because they feel insecure and they derive their identity almost entirely from the group.
Abuse rarely occurs where it does not have the sanction and blessing of the authorities, whether local or national.
The permissive environment is sine qua non. The more abnormal the circumstances, the less normative the milieu, the further the sin of the crime is from public scrutiny, the more is egregious abuse likely to occur.
This acquiescence is especially true in totalitarian societies where the use of physical force to discipline or eliminate dissent is an acceptable practice. In many cultures, this is also the practice in families, in family units.
Unfortunately, such behavior is also rampant in democratic, civilized, progressive, liberal societies.
Abuse is everywhere, averting our eyes, ignoring it only makes it worse and all pervasive.
One or later, it comes to haunt us, even the good people.