We have a specific type of problem we don’t want to acknowledge – but we desperately need to. It is a problem that we are only starting to glimpse as a society, but one we will inevitably uncover more and more as we continue to identify problems and implement solutions over time. The scale of this suffering is only beginning to dawn on us, even though it’s something that has been there all along.
What I’m pointing out is not entirely new or original – many others have noticed this dynamic – but the problem still needs a name. I call it the Veil of Misery.
Once you learn to spot the signs, you will see this problem everywhere, mostly because it is indeed everywhere. Any system without oversight where people exert authority over others can (and likely will) become a Veil of Misery over time, and there is no shortage of real-world examples. The Catholic Church cover-ups, the USA Gymnastics and Penn State scandals, The Weinstein scandal, even many predatory legal and financial schemes – just about any system struggling with rampant abuse will exhibit these characteristics.
We are going to be fighting this battle repeatedly for decades – probably longer – so we need to start thinking about what kind of tools and methods we can use that are widely applicable. The problem definitely isn’t going away on its own.
1. Authority or custody
Any system in which some persons exert power, control, or authority over another person’s current well-being or general future. This can come in a variety of forms: the authority can be over housing, careers, education, finances, or even just social status.
2. Information silos
Any system where there are barriers to gathering cumulative data, either due to bureacratic obstacles or social strictures. These barriers also comes in different shapes and sizes: info can be blocked by things like privacy laws and other legal hurdles – or by taboos, stigmas, and whisper networks.
3. Lack of consequences
Any system in which the persons (including both victims and perpetrators) tend to believe that there will be no oversight or repercussions for harm done.
The prime example of this in American society is the foster care system. It may even be the #1 issue that no one ever talks about, and that is precisely due to the nature of the Veil of Misery.
Whether intentional or not, the veil effectively acts as cover for bad actors. It works to hide the problem by suppressing widespread awareness, even while it continues to grow and proliferate under the radar. Sometimes problems get so bad that they eventually break through the veil and become a national scandal, but this is not guaranteed. It is perfectly possible (and even common) for the misery to continue indefinitely. And honestly, I’m not sure which outcome to expect for the foster system.
The “system” of foster care can mean different things to different people, depending on how you define it, but every part of the system has the three features above. Custody is obvious: these kids are in the direct care of state governments. The information barriers are also clear: privacy laws and archaic systems make it pretty much impossible to glean good data about the welfare of kids across the system as a whole. The lack of consequence is a little trickier to show here, but rest assured that adults get away with things in the foster care system that are abjectly horrifying. And when you start turning over rocks? In my opinion it is the single most depressing side of humanity.
One last point here, the foster care system is huge. There are as many as half a million people in official custody on a given day, and the number of kids in “the system” could be even larger depending on who you’re counting. That means, even if the system boasted a near-perfect record, even if kids were safe and protected 99% of the time, there would still be thousands upon thousands of kids suffering from abuse. And the system does NOT boast a near-perfect record. Not even close.
If the full scale of the suffering is ever really exposed, people will be shocked. Or they’ll just refuse to believe it.
How do we fix this type of problem? I’m not entirely sure. Yet. But I know we definitely can’t address it without properly defining it. So this is just a start.
I don’t think we’ll be able to really “fix” #1, since invariably we are going to have systems in which some people have authority over others. We can probably minimize it in a bunch of ways, but it will always be around. That said, #2 and #3 seem fixable in many circumstances, though of course not without serious effort and, as always, complications. Legal complications, technical complications, social complications – there is always a knot to be untangled, a mess of obstacles to both information and consequences. But still, that knot is probably where we should target our solutions, and I already have one tool in mind for both: sunlight.