R. Kelly, Sex Abuse, and Networks of Complicity

Kelly’s recent conviction for racketeering and sex trafficking crimes was long overdue. How in the world could he gave gotten away with this abuse for decades? An excellent analysis of the “whys” of this sad situation was recently published in The Conversation by our friend and colleague, Minette Drumwright of the University of Texas Moody School of Communication and her co-author, Peggy Cunningham, of Dalhousie University in Canada.

Drumwright and Cunningham have long studied moral (and immoral) decision making and one of their best articles (with Kenneth William Foster), “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sex Harassment” in the journal Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion provides one of the most cogent explanations possible of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, R. Kelly and similar repugnant examples of long-term sex abuse.

In The Conversation, Drumwright and Cunningham explain how their theory of “networks of complicity” applies to R. Kelly:

In Kelly’s trial, the prosecution produced 45 witnesses who provided evidence of managers, assistants, bodyguards and other members of Kelly’s entourage who not only recruited and delivered underage girls and boys for Kelly to have sex with, but also covered for him and fixed problems for the singer when they occurred.

We have heard stories such as Kelly’s time and time again: A charismatic leader uses their star power and rewards, but also fear and intimidation to draw individuals from inside and outside their organization into a loyal network of supporters. The supporters do their leader’s bidding, run interference and deflect criticism.

The perpetrators control and shape information and build myths to enhance their expertise and greatness. Members of the network of complicity fall victim to such storytelling and myth-building.

Our research – like the evidence in Kelly’s trial – demonstrates that bad behavior metastasizes and spreads through the network of complicity. The prosecution provided evidence that members of Kelly’s network also behaved illegally and unethically. For example, a former tour manager, Demetrius Smith, testified that he bribed an Illinois state employee to get a fake ID for underage R&B Singer, Aaliyah, so that Kelly could marry her.

Typically, the bad behavior of the perpetrator and the network creates a toxic organizational culture in which abuse and unethical acts become the norm and everyone in the organization suffers, not just victims.

Our research also shows that typically many people beyond the network of complicity know about the bad behavior but act as bystanders unwilling to report abuse or take action to stop it. They form a network of complacency that, through its passivity, also enables the perpetrator’s bad behavior to continue.

The prosecution in Kelly’s case provided evidence that Kelly was enabled by a silent network.

As Drumwright and Cunningham point out, several key concepts of behavioral ethics (about which Ethics Unwrapped just happens to have relevant videos) help explain why Kelly’s (and Weinstein’s and Epstein’s) underlings and associates would play key roles in the networks of complicity and networks of complacency that enabled their abuse:

  • All people are wired to be obedient to authority. We tend to derive pleasure and satisfaction from pleasing our superiors. The fact that their boss asks them to do something often makes it seem to underlings like it is an acceptable thing to do.
  • Another reason that people like to please the boss is that to do so often leads to career advancement, raises in salary, and the like. The self-serving bias makes what seems best for us often seem like what is best.
  • People are also subject to the conformity bias. They take their cues as to how to act from those around them. If other R. Kelly employees are enabling his conduct, then, again, it may seem to these employees to be an okay thing to do. Brain studies show that most of us suffer some sort of psychic cost when we try to stand up to the majority.
  • The decisions all of us make have everything to do with what is in our frame of reference when we decide. Therefore, the concept of framing tells us that if we are focused on pleasing the boss, on getting along with our co-workers, and/or on advancing our own self-interest, all of which are perfectly natural things to do, then considerations of what is moral may fade out of our decisional calculus and be ignored when we make moral judgments and action decisions.
  • Then there’s Albert Bandura’s notion of diffusion of responsibility—the fact that the more people are involved in a situation, the less morally responsible any single one of them is likely to feel for what is happening. Psychologists Darley and Latané set up an experiment where a distress call made it appear that a person nearby had suffered an injury. When subjects heard the cry, and thought they were the only ones who heard it, 85% of them helped.  But if subjects thought there was another person who also heard the call, only 62% helped. And if subjects thought that four other people also heard the cry for help, just 31% helped. The more associates, employees and hangers-on are involved in helping Kelly with his depredations, the less responsible any single one of them will feel for the harms he inflicted on his victims.
  • Finally, all this can lead to both moral myopia (which is akin to ethical fading) and to moral muteness—two concepts that Drumwright developed with co-author Patrick Murphy. Moral myopia occurs when competing considerations prevent moral issues from coming into clear view in a person’s mind. Moral muteness occurs when people use rationalizations to avoid expressing their moral sentiments.

There’s nothing new under the sun, it is often said. Unfortunately, we keep seeing the same old story of sex abuse with Weinstein, Epstein, Kelly, and others. We all need to start taking the notion of Networks of Complicity and Networks of Complacency seriously, monitoring our own workplaces to ensure that we are not part of the problem ourselves.

 

Sources:

Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumwright, “R.Kelly Was Aided by a Network of Complicity—Common in  Workplace Abuse—that Enabled Crimes to Go on for Decades,” The Conversation, originally published Sept. 28, 2021 and updated June 30, 2022, at https://theconversation.com/r-kelly-was-aided-by-a-network-of-complicity-common-in-work

place-abuse-that-enabled-crimes-to-go-on-for-decades-168809.

Peggy Cunningham, Minette Drumwright & Kenneth William Foster, “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sex Harassment,” Equity, Diversity & Inclusion 40(4): 392-409 (2021)

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumsright, “Banning Non-disclosure Agreements Isn’t Enough to Stop Unethical Workplace Leader Behaviour,” The Conversation, Dec. 13, 2021, at https://theconversation.com/banning-non-disclosure-agreements-isnt-enough-to-stop-unethical-workplace-leader-behaviour-173574.

John Darley and Bibb Latané, “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 8(4-Pt. I): 377-383 (1968).

Minette Drumwright & Peggy Cunningham, “Unethical Newsroom Behavior: Paradoxes and a Perfect Storm,” Journalism Practice: 16(5): 963-983 (2022).

Minette Drumwright & Peggy Cunningham, “Cuomo Thrived on Silence and Complicity. Getting Rid of Him is Not Enough,” USA Today, Aug. 12, 2021, at https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/08/12/andrew-cuomos-network-complicity-enabled-abuse-needs-stop/8098072002/.

Minette Drumwright & Patrick Murphy, “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination,” Journal of Advertising 33(2): 7-24 (2004).

Peter Wells, “R&B Singer R Kelly Sentenced to 30 Years in Prison,” Financial Times, June 29, 2022, at https://www.ft.com/content/fd72c2e1-b516-4ce5-bff4-900892aba7c6.

 

Videos:

Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.

Diffusion of Responsibility: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/diffusion-of-responsibility.

Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/ethical-fading.

Framing: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.

Moral Muteness: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-muteness.

Moral Myopia: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-myopia.

Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority.

Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias.

 

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