A boy grows up in a controlling, cultlike family that rejects Enlightenment values and closes off much of the outside world. He is deprived of any conception of morality separate from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. His intellectual and ethical development is stunted by reactionary, dogmatic views about gender and sexuality. He is told that women were made to be subservient to men, to be obedient to their masters. How should we react when it comes to light that this boy repeatedly molested young girls?
Because that boy is now 27-year-old Josh Duggar, much of the left has greeted the news of his molestation charges with a kind of derisive, jeering disgust. Duggar—star of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, oldest child of the right-wing Duggar family, and (until now) a key player at the Family Research Council, a certified hate group—has spent his career fighting LGBTQ rights. He has fought against marriage equality and LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, suggesting that such laws could jeopardize children. His mother implied that trans people are child predators. His employer wrote that gay marriage and gay adoption should be outlawed because gay men are extremely likely to molest young boys. And at the same time he and his family were promoting these noxious views and using reality TV to build their fame, they were covering up Josh’s record of molesting multiple young girls as a teenager. (TLC pulled the show from its schedule on Friday.)
The leaders of the Duggar clan are undoubtedly hypocrites of the highest order. Josh’s heinous crime merits our utmost moral condemnation, and his victims deserve sympathy and compassion. But it would be shortsighted to treat Josh with nothing more than mocking, scornful ire. Josh may be a monster—but as 19 Kids and Counting demonstrates, his path to depravity was lighted by the twisted beliefs of his parents.
Although TLC goes to great lengths to mask this fact, the Duggar family is a cult. They forbid their children from exploring outside ideas and expression, carefully monitoring every word and image they are exposed to. They forbid them from wearing shorts. They homeschool them in order to indoctrinate them with backward beliefs. They refuse to let their adult daughters kiss or hold hands before marriage and demand to read every text between their daughters and their suitors. They adhere to a fringe Christian movement called the “Christian patriarchy,” which commands total female submission to men and limited education for women. The Duggars do everything they can to control their children’s minds, then brainwash them with misogynistic dogma.
Josh Duggar grew up in this sexist milieu. He was told that women exist to serve men—to show them “submission,” “obedience,” and “reverence.” He was barred from seeking out any differing views about men and women. His mind was warped from childhood. Is it any surprise that, by the time he reached adolescence, he believed girls’ bodies were his to touch however he pleased?
The story of Josh Duggar—of the whole Duggar family, really—is a tragedy. Duggar’s actions were absolutely appalling, as anyone with a well-tuned moral compass could understand. Of course we should condemn Josh and his crimes: Contra Mike Huckabee’s strange statement, publicly denouncing sex criminals sends a resounding message that our society won’t tolerate such abuse. But even as we reprove him, we should remember the odious lies that were forced down his throat as a child. As much as Josh deserves our scorn, the young teen who perpetrated these crimes also deserves a small measure of our pity. Josh was born into a world of subjugation and repression. That doesn’t excuse his monstrous behavior. But it does help to explain how a man who spends his days espousing family values lost his own sense of morality.