Often, a member making an accusation faces reprisal

Via Jen Phillips: University of Oregon researchers urge psychologists to see institutional betrayal.

Oh yes? [ears go up like a dog’s] I’m very interested in that right now.

In their paper, UO doctoral student Carly P. Smith and psychology professor Jennifer J. Freyd draw from their own studies and diverse writings and research to provide a framework to help recognize patterns of institutional betrayal. The term, the authors wrote, aims to capture “the individual experiences of violations of trust and dependency perpetrated against any member of an institution in a way that does not necessarily arise from an individual’s less-privileged identity.”

An institution…like…a church? A university? The military? The NFL? Corporations, government, non-profits, political movements?

Sound familiar? Yeah.

While their paper focuses on sexual assaults on college campuses, in the military and in religious institutions, the authors say that such betrayal is a wide-ranging phenomenon. Throughout the paper, they discuss the case of a college freshman in the Midwest whose questionably handled allegations against a major university’s football player eventually contributed to her suicide.

“I think what struck me most in our examination of the literature was that people are starting to turn over this idea in their minds in all these different fields,” Smith said. “They are starting to notice that when we see abuse or other trauma occurring, it might behoove us to broaden our focus beyond the individual level.”

Yup. Yup yup yup.

They note that institutional betrayal is a dimensional phenomenon, with acts of omission and commission as well as instances of betrayal that may vary on how clearly systemic they are at the outset. Institutional characteristics that the authors say often precede such betrayal include:

• Membership qualifications with inflexible requirements where “conformity is valued and deviance quickly corrected as a means of self-policing among members.” Often, a member making an accusation faces reprisal because of the institutional value placed on membership.

• Prestige given to top leaders results in a power differential. In this case, allegations that are made by a member against a leader often are met by gatekeepers whose roles are designed to protect top-level authority.

• Priorities that result in “damage control” efforts designed to protect the overall reputation of the institution. Examples include the abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, the movement of clergy to other locations in the face of allegations and hiding incidents of incest within family units.  More recently, Freyd and Smith noted, the NFL demonstrated this quality by denying it had seen video footage of one of its players battering his fiancee and its previously long record of minor penalties for such interpersonal abuse.

• Institutional denial in which members who allege abuse are marginalized by the institution as being bad apples whose personal behaviors should be the issue.

Check, check, check, and check. We’re seeing that all the time, these days. Hour by hour, we’re seeing it. Bridges go up in flames as we see it.


  1. John Morales says

    If a fandom counts as an institution, it’s a very diffuse one.

    (The dynamic at work is plausible and not-so-controversial, though)

  2. mildlymagnificent says

    Has anybody sent copies to Dawkins, Nugent, Randi, Harris … yet?

    Maybe they’d do better to imagine themselves on the carpet facing a dressing down from Lieutenant General David the-standard-you-walk-past-is-the-standard-you-accept Morrison. That’s what leadership looks like. (I think Nugent in particular could benefit from such a salutary experience.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaqpoeVgr8U

  3. robertrichter says

    “fandom” isn’t an institution, but it contains several. Message boards are institutions, as are conventions, etc.

  4. jenniferphillips says

    @John Morales–if ‘fandom’ has some overlap with ‘movement’, then absofuckinglutely.
    And you’re right, the findings are not that controversial to those of us who have recognized this phenomenon as it unfolds through organizations great and small (by the way, a family can also be considered an ‘institution’ in this capacity), but having a solid quantitative study to back up what everyone recognizes is a huge step toward advocating and promoting evidence based policy changes within these institutions. It’s powerful stuff.

  5. hyphenman says

    @ mildlymagnificent No. 2

    Great speech, thanks for the link. I’m having difficulty parsing the central quote:

    ” The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

    English is my first language (well, American English, anyway) but I’m not getting Morrison’s meaning.


  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Regardless of the institutions intended purpose, a twisted self-preservation takes over and paralyses the fundamental moral responsibility.

    Patterns? Yes. A piecemeal approach to individual incidents is not enough to handle either the specific crimes, or especially the poor institutional response.

    I’m going to push David Lisak again. In rape investigations, the long term behavior of the accused MUST be investigated. Merely recording the accusations and filing them away with the immediate denials is an abject failure of investigative responsibility. A victim’s report of a particular incident doesn’t come out of the blue. The perpetrators almost always have long histories of violence and sexual offence.

    ‘Normal’ investigation of these cases is like investigating drug murders without mentioning the drugs or the gangs. The specific criminal offence is part of the larger pattern and cannot be addressed in a vacuum.

  7. otrame says


    I think you could translate it into American as :The status quo that you walk past is the status quo you accept.” In other words, when you see someone doing something wrong step the fuck up. Confront them. In very violent situations there is nothing wrong with just calling the cops, but in a more usual sense it means not laughing at racist or sexist jokes, calling out one of your friends when he calls a woman a lesbian bitch because she said no thanks to his proposition. It means don’t be comfortable in company that is behaving badly. And don’t just walk away. Speak up.

  8. hyphenman says

    @otrame No. 8

    Thanks. I understand that is what Morrison thought he was saying, and in Australian English (I spent some time in Australia during my tour of duty with the Navy), he probably said exactly what he meant to say, but the syntax is still wonky for me.

    At one point I tried to look at his words from a military context and think of “standard” as in national flag.

    I also tried to see the negative end, i.e. that if you walk past a crime, then you become the criminal. That may also work and be closer to what Morrison wanted the listener to hear.

    Substituting “you ignore” for “you walk past” may make better sense to my American ears.


  9. RJW says

    @9 hyphenman,

    Actually it’s not clear Australian English either, remember that he’s a member of a military sub-culture with its own jargon, outrame @8 has the correct interpretation. Morrison’s comments are not really difficult to interpret and policy is more important than grammar.

  10. mildlymagnificent says

    I also tried to see the negative end, i.e. that if you walk past a crime, then you become the criminal. That may also work and be closer to what Morrison wanted the listener to hear.

    Not exactly. He’s mainly interested – at this point – in officers and NCOs. (Because most of the people he talks about in the opening remarks and their probably illegal goings on were officers and NCOs.) What he’s saying is that when you’re a military officer you’re an officer all the time, not just when you turn up for work. He’s also saying that respect for women and proper sexual behaviour are requirements for people serving in the force he leads, not just personal private choices about morality.

  11. Suido says


    It’s a common phrase in Australian industry. I’ve primarily heard it used regarding safety (if you walk past someone welding without a mask and don’t say/do anything, you accept that eye damage is an acceptable part of the job), but also applied to general behaviour as well.

    The (work practice/behaviour) you (notice but don’t do anything about) is the (work practice/behaviour) that you (deem to be acceptable).

    Alternately, “if you see something [wrong], say something [about it]”.


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