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This is why I’m a political scientist and not a psychologist

I can understand how people can hold all sorts of wacked-out political views (after all, in the past, people have supported ideas as crazy as abolitionism, polygamy, monarchy, and the nationalization of the means of production), but certain things in psychology just continue to baffle me, even though I know they’re true.

The most recent example is a horrifying news article by Rachel Aviv about a group of ultra-religious Jews in Brooklyn who rallied around to support a child molester who was also a powerful member of their community. It’s just hard for me to get my head around the story. Various parts of it make sense: I can understand that, when a popular person is accused of molesting kids, that people don’t want to believe it. But, the amount of money and effort that was spent to protect this guy . . . it’s an incredible story. I mean, what were these people thinking???

The story also includes some sleazy lawyers and politicians, but that part doesn’t surprise me so much—in the U.S. we have an adversarial system of justice and I understand that many lawyers seem to believe that it’s their job to get their clients off the hook by all means necessary; and, when it comes to politicians, you can always feel that they’re balancing the harm to the few against the good of the many (and, for a typical politician, I guess that reelection corresponds to the good of the many). For these guys, it’s all business. An ugly business in this case, but it’s what you can expect. But, for the people in that religious community, it seems different, more like they were making personal sacrifices of time, money, and honor in order to, well, to keep a child molester out on the street, and also to intimidate other victims from exposing other child molesters. That’s the part that’s hard for me to fathom: what were they getting out of it? It can’t just be fear of reprisal (the sort of thing that, presumably, motivated so many of those denouncers in the old Soviet system): if that were the concern, I assume these guys could’ve just stayed aloof and let the system take its course. There was hard-core string-pulling, payoffs, all sorts of things (again, see the linked article for details).

In some sort of abstract sense, I suppose I understand this based on psychological principles, cognitive dissonance and all that. Also I guess there’s some sociology here, that these people felt that they had to do this based on their roles in the community.

And then there’s one other bit, which I guess is cultural (whatever that means). Here’s Aviv:

Molestation was rarely discussed in the community, and it didn’t seem to Kellner [the father of one of the molested children] that any of the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments explicitly related to it. The most relevant sins—adultery and coveting a neighbor’s belongings—didn’t capture the depth of the violation. . . .

In a community where non-procreative sex is considered shameful, molestation tends to be regarded in roughly the same light as having an affair. When children complain about being molested, the council almost never notifies the police. Instead, it devises its own punishments for offenders: sometimes they are compelled to apologize, pay restitution, or move to Israel.

When I read this, I was like, huh? Haven’t these people heard about the concept of the repeat offender? You’re gonna send them to Israel so they can do it again over there???

But maybe the real point here is I need to think not like a psychologist but like an anthropologist. From my standpoint as a modern middle-class American, child molestation is this horrible crime. But, in other cultures, it’s no worse than, I dunno, whatever offense it is that you could get off the hook by apologizing, paying restitution, or moving to the Middle East. Without really thinking about it, my reasoning had gone like this: (a) We’re talking about an extremely socially conservative community with traditional sex roles, and so (b) They must really really hate child molesters, even more than the rest of us do. Actually, though, the logic seems to be closer to the following: (a) We’re talking about an extremely socially conservative community with traditional sex roles, so (b) They really really hate any suggestion that the traditional system of roles has any problem. Child molestation is viewed in some cultures as not such a big deal.

Again, to return to the title of this post: I feel that I can understand just about any position when it comes to issue attitudes, partisanship, and voting (and I think that this openness, along with the collaboration of four excellent colleagues, gave our Red State Blue State book a broad perspective on American politics), but when it comes to this sort of personal decision making in a social environment—in this case, people going out of their way to keep a child molester on the street—I get stuck. I can go around and around and try to understand, but any explanation still seems to me to be imposed on the system, it doesn’t seem to flow naturally. I think this is a weakness on my part as a social scientist.


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Interesting how you do these things in arrears; I had just about forgotten this striking story.

    The best stories, fiction or nonfiction, don’t just tell you about others; they tell you about yourself. I had many talks with friends about this story; none of us have any close connection with Hasidic communities, though many of us are Jewish of various degrees of adherence. There was a near-violent disagreement about what this article meant. To one group it was about THOSE PEOPLE and what was wrong with them. Opposing them were those who saw within them a very familiar story about power, in-groups, ostracism and willful denial. In some ways, I think the story was worse because it was about child molestation (not that the burden of truthfulness gave her any choice.) If somehow it were algebra, and for child molestation we substitute some variable c, and draw all our conclusions from reactions to c, and only substitute child molestation for c after the rest of the article has been processed….

  2. Xi'an says:

    what’s wrong with the nationalization of the means of production?!

  3. Rahul says:

    Yes, anthropology. In some cultures you can perfectly legally get off free for a murder you committed by paying judicially approved monetary restitution to the victim’s family. I think many Middle East jurisdictions allow this.

    If I’m not mistaken they allow this for rape too.

    I guess morality is all culturally relative, eh?

    • D.O. says:

      I predict that in a century or so locking people up as a punishment for crimes in places where they do nothing good to themselves or community and are only being brutalized and adapted even more to the criminal subculture, will be viewed as complete nuttiness.

  4. jonathan says:

    I think of this as an informationally closed system. When you look at elections, you are evaluating a mix of internally and externally generated information and how the various participants in that system respond. Take out the externally generated information and you get these cultish responses: the external world doesn’t exist, connection to the external world is considered worse than what happens within the closed system, etc. It can become as irrational as N. Koreans thinking the entire world speaks Korean.

  5. Richard McElreath says:

    As resident anthropologist in these parts, let me remind readers of the Sambia semen ingestion rituals:

    This is common material for undergraduate anthropology courses. It brings up all of the uncomfortable things Andrew mentions in the OP. Key among them is the struggle between recognition of alternative values and concern for exploitation and harm.

    When I teach it, I follow it with non-Western reactions to Westerners forcing babies to sleep in cribs.

  6. numeric says:

    Leviticus gives penalties for raping a slave, etc (and they’re pretty light and involve some animal sacrifice, if I remember correctly). Don’t know if it covers child molestation but the point is that Jewish law (and by extension Christian, for that matter, though Christians even eat meat on Fridays) allows for payments for a variety of offenses that are nowadays considered infamous. The genocide at Jericho (every man, woman and child slaughtered after the fall of the city) trumps anything ISIS is doing these days. I guess the point is that religions evolve (no more Inquisition) but, like the US Constitution, if you go back to the original it can have some applications which we would now consider barbaric (3/5ths a person). I just wonder if these ultra-religious individuals think they are living in the Israeli of 1,000 BC, or wish they were.

  7. jrkrideau says:

    This sounds very much like a classic whistle blower case except the whistle blower’s threatened target is a cultural/religious and who knows what else agglomeration rather than a formal organization such as a university, government department etc.

    An insider suddenly reports abuse inside the organization, internal remedies don’t work and the plaintiff goes to external authorities and all hell breaks loose. Here’s a rather nasty one from my side of the border

    Not up to Snowdon but it shows the type of thing that can happen within an organization and if the Hasidic community in NYC is as tightly organized as the article suggests then a similar reaction sounds exactly like what we would expect.

    Political scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists all should not be surprised.

  8. Rahul says:

    At the other extreme, I think imprisonment terms of, say, 60 years are inhumane, no matter what the crime. I haven’t read the article but how many years would this molester be likely to get, anyone know?

    Ergo, if the only two options are to impose a penalty I consider inhumane versus letting him off free (i.e. a “reasonable” punishment is not on the table) is it clear which devil’s alternative one ought to choose?

    e.g. Say I abhor the death penalty does it make it logical for me to lobby & contribute dollars to legally defend a murderer in a regime that is sure to hang him if convicted?

    Not saying this applies to this alleged molester; but just trying to explore how reality could be more complex.

  9. Isn’t this really about politics rather than psychology? The issue is not the psychology of the molester or the possible psychological harm to the molestees. It’s about who has the power to make and enforce rules. The religious community wants to be immune from the laws of New York. A rabbi molesting kids is not a threat to the autonomy and insularity of the whole group. Going to the police about it is. And as you know, this is not the first such case in Brooklyn. See this story from two years ago.

    Or see the Beckett case from 960 years ago. If I remember correctly from the movie Burton-O’Toole movie (that’s about the extent of my knowledge of church history), Thomas Becket, as head of the church, saw it as more important to preserve the church’s power (immunity from state law) than to punish murder committed by a priest.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure, but it’s not just that they’re not reporting it to the police. These community members are engaging in all sorts of strenuous effort to protect people they must know are child abusers.

      • I guess it depends on who the child abusers are, and on the extent to which people think that it’s abuse. The Hasidim are not the Sambia. Still, when people consider outcomes, they probably are weighing the seriousness of the crime against other qualities of the offender (e.g., his position in the community) and the community as a whole. Maybe the Hasidim are not so protective of children (remember Isaac — nobody on earth was intervening on his behalf, and the kid was lucky to get out alive). And maybe they weight community-welfare (as they perceive it) differently than non-Hasidim do.

    • Martha says:

      This quote from Jay’s link shows that there are some of the same players in the two stories:

      “The proceedings were closely watched, as this was the first high-profile case against child sexual abuse that the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, had brought against a member of the politically powerful Satmar ultra-Orthodox community during his more than two decades in office.”

    • Rahul says:

      That’s a fantastic movie. Thank’s for mentioning it. Reminds me of A Man for All Seasons.

  10. jrc says:

    “But, in other cultures, it’s no worse than, I dunno, whatever offense it is that you could get off the hook by apologizing, paying restitution, or moving to the Middle East.”

    Re-read this sentence to yourself and think about whether you would write this about the Catholic Church, whose religious leaders have also apologized, paid restitution, and been sent off to faraway lands, instead of being prosecuted.

    I don’t think this is so much about the culture tolerating child molesters, I think it is about a culture that is both sexually repressed (like a certain kind of devout Catholicism) and equates being “good” as maintaining their own identity against a very real threat from the secular world – the threat of being swallowed whole by the culture of materialism (like a certain kind of devout Catholicism). The two interact is reinforcing ways: sexual repression generates needs for sexual release; the belief that being devoted to an endangered (and holy) cause is evidence of goodness generates an excuse for immoral behavior (devotion is proof of basic goodness – to oneself and others); the community has a strong incentive to (and history of) band(ing) together against overwhelming external pressures, making collusion and cooperative resistance a major part of daily life; the fear and misunderstanding of sexuality in general makes frank discussion of sexual ethics impossible, essentially shutting off the desire or ability to confront the reality of the moral transgression; and “criminality” as a concept is suspicious because it stems not from True Law but from secular law (not to mention that living a devout religious life sometimes come into direct conflict with secular law, making the authorities and police untrustworthy persecutors).

    I don’t think this is about relative cultural morality and whether raping little children is right or wrong. I think these people are more like the police union reps that immediately back up their officers even when they murder someone in broad daylight on video. Or like 1960’s Marxists in Europe who would defend Stalin and his gulags. Police officers and those “Marxists” both knew they were defending murder, but that isn’t how they wanted to think about it, so they didn’t think about it that way. They thought about it as protecting their community. And since cops and Marxists can have sex, and since they often have to think in scary ways about killing people, they defend murder instead of rape.

  11. Artibeus says:

    You fail to see the direct connection between traditional sex roles and irrelevance of consent. When the object of men’s sexual advances (women) are not people but subhuman, then men’s unwanted or non consensual sexual advances can always be excused and restitution/moving etc. are reasonable solutions to what is otherwise a minor transgression. Only people are entitled to sexual consent and since women and children are not people, but property, then all transgressions can be made to go away. The only real conflict arises if a man forces himself on another adult man. Or, when as in the story, on the son of a man who did not fully internalize the rules of such system.

    • Andrew says:


      That all sounds fine, but in regular middle-class America, people who believe in traditional sex roles don’t think it’s ok to go Cosbying or to molest children! So it can’t be so straightforward as you describe.

      • Martha says:


        Perhaps your conception of “traditional sex roles” ignores important variation within traditional views. One thing in particular that varies within what might be called traditional views of sex roles is the extent to which a woman has the right to refuse sex with her husband. I would guess that when wives do not have this right, the “man’s prerogative” is more likely to extend to having sex with children than when wives have the right of refusal. For one thing, when men feel entitled to sex on demand within marriage, they may be more likely to feel entitled to sex on demand outside of marriage. For another, when women do not have the right of refusal, they are “lesser” beings, like children; looked at from the other direction, then, a child is more like a wife, there to gratify the man’s desires. For still another, if a wife has no right of refusal, the husband may resort to physical force or psychological coercion to get what he wants, thus being more likely to use these tactics on children, because they come to seem natural to him.

  12. Martha says:

    Your post (title and last paragraph especially) suggest that political science, like economics, has “macro” and “micro” aspects. You study macro political science; the New Yorker article is about micro political science — which seems to involve a lot of psychology and anthropology. The psychological aspects include power, humiliation, loyalty, shame, control, influence, manipulation, intimidation, persuasion, identity, and perhaps other aspects of psychology — but also how these aspects interact. The anthropological aspect in large part involves how these psychological “constructs” are “constructed” (defined, interpreted, whatever) in different cultures — and their relative importance in different cultures, and how they interact differently in different cultures.

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