Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.
We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.
What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.
When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.
And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.
We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.
It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.