Psychologists and substance abuse counselors often refer to “enablers” — those who, in a misguided attempt to help, enable addicts to continue their self-destructive behavior by making excuses for them or helping them dodge the consequences of their conduct.
Sometimes I wonder if America has become a land of enablers. How often do you hear people respond to news of failures by others by making excuses or attacking the person who delivers the news? Whether the fault lies with their children, their chosen political candidates, or the school or church they support, people are often much too willing to condone or cover up misdeeds. It’s as if the enabler’s identity becomes so wrapped up with the politician, or school, that they simply cannot accept the possibility of failure — and therefore the blame inevitably must lie elsewhere.
I thought of this when I saw the reaction of some Penn State fans to the recently released Freeh report on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Even though the report was commissioned by the University’s Board of Trustees and was based on hundreds of interviews and scrutiny of extensive documentary evidence by neutral third parties, many Penn State fans refuse to accept the magnitude and meaning of the enormous institutional problems spotlighted by the report. They dismiss the report as a hatchet job, with conclusions motivated by some elusive, lurking ulterior motive, or argue that the report’s conclusions are based on evidence that wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law. Aren’t such attempts to explain away the obvious just another example of enabling behavior?
As psychologists and substance abuse counselors will attest, enabling behavior doesn’t help the abuser — it just allows him to move farther and faster on that downward spiral. Far better to hold the person, or the institution, accountable for their failures and their misdeeds, and recognize that there is nothing wrong with blaming the blameworthy. We shouldn’t be so ready to go all in for the politician, or celebrity, or football coach, to the point where our reflexive willingness to make excuses begins to say more about us than it does about the struggling person whose conduct we are foolishly enabling.