When I grew up, third graders could walk to school, play alone at the park, or bike 10 minutes to a friend’s house without anyone worrying or objecting, so long as they came home for supper or before the street lights came on.
Today, though kidnapping is just as rare, a parent who allows that same behavior is at risk of arrest or even losing custody of their children to their state’s child protective services bureaucracy.
Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s…
For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.
Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied. The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.
Then there’s the high school senior complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher and is suspended for “cyberbullying.”
Or students at Wellesley who start a petition calling for the removal of a statue of a man in his underwear, claiming that the art piece caused them emotional trauma.
Or the residents of Santa Monica, California, claim to need emotional support animals that the local farmer’s market warns against service dog fraud.
What the hell is this?
I think a psychologist named Nick Haslam may have nailed it. He calls it “concept creep”. Basically, he argues, concepts that refer to the negative aspects of human experience and behavior have expanded their meanings so that they now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before. This expansion takes “horizontal” and “vertical” forms: concepts extend outward to capture qualitatively new phenomena and downward to capture quantitatively less extreme phenomena.
So, as we become educate (and educate others) to the concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, sexual harassment, prejudice, etc., the behaviors that constitute abuse, bullying, etc. become watered down.
Haslam suggests this happens as a result of a liberal moral agenda. I don’t know if agree, but I certainly don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t address — in a progressive way — certain societal problems. I just think that when we talk about, say, parental abuse — a serious problem — we should not define it so broadly so as to include what happened to Debra Harrell who let her kid play in a park.
It’s like when Ainsley Hayes on The West Wing explains about feminism, and how there are “honest-to-God” problems facing women and calling out the petty stuff gets in the way of addressing the real problems.
So to the extent that concept creep has society tied up in knots, making everyone a whiny victim of [name your poison] , maybe we need to buck up and address REAL bullying, REAL abuse, REAL prejudice, etc.
Here’s the Haslam monograph: