The Choices We Make…and Don’t Make
I found Ryan Bonneville’s post this morning on the horrible events at Penn State to be highly appropriate. Especially this:
I don’t know what the solution is. Taking membership in these institutions with a grain of salt is obviously called for, but that’s pretty tough. Understanding that your membership means holding them to higher standards and calling them out for failing is probably an easier virtue to instill than skepticism.
These two sentences are the most important and under-discussed aspect of this story. The moral condemnation of those who did little (in the case of Paterno) and those who actively covered up (in the case of Paterno’s superiors) is easy and, for the most part, appropriate. And there is no doubt in my mind that because of the magnitude of their failures, each of these people, including Paterno, needed to go – immediately.
It also does nothing to understand why this happened and why this type of scenario happens with disturbing frequency (not just with sex abuse scandals, but with any number of coverups). It is easy for any of us to say that we, individually, would have done more. In some cases, we’re no doubt right (especially if we’re comparing ourselves to the alleged witness). But for the most part, how we think we would act and how we would actually act are two distinct things. The Lucifer Effect, for those who haven’t read it, is extraordinarily relevant here.
Surely, until this happened, Paterno himself would have thought his actions would have been far stronger. And, surely, Paterno is a strong individual – this is a man who created a legend and in no small part built a sizable portion of a sizable university, who did it by playing by the rules, and who frankly was one of the rare people who seems to have excelled at building men, not just football players. This is one of the few people in the world that one could classify as a Great Man. Yet, when he had to choose between protecting his organization’s reputation and protecting children, even he failed, risking his own well-earned legacy in the process. Even he risked not only children, but also his own interests, for what he perceived as the interests of his organization.
Notice that I say above that Joe Paterno is a Great Man, not was. Yes, this does and should tarnish his legacy, and possibly even destroy it. But it does not change who and what he is. We should not suddenly pretend that he is a stranger to us, that we didn’t get to know who he was over the last 50 years – this is a man who practically lived on campus, not in a gated community, who never thought of jumping on the coaching carousel, and who meant something to a lot of people for a reason.
We should not feel like we know him any less than we did a week ago. A week ago, this man’s remarkable loyalty to his institution was deemed one of his most admirable traits; today, that loyalty has quite rightly cost him his job and his legacy and, most importantly, has been shown to have had unthinkable consequences for innocent children. That is precisely what should scare us the most if things like this are ever to become less frequent.
Like Ryan, I do not know the solution to this. I know only that moral condemnation of the individuals, though necessary and appropriate, is not remotely enough, at least not as long as that moral condemnation comes packaged with a giant helping of self-superiority. At minimum, we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about valuing loyalty – “love it or leave it” is a nice bumper sticker, but has horrible consequences. Loyalty is surely a valuable and good characteristic, but doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t also mean holding that which you love to a higher standard.