Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunces: Penn State Students”

“Different Angle,” a college student and victim of child abuse, has, appropriately enough, a different angle on the Paterno/Penn State/ Sandusky scandal, and it provides useful and provocative perspective. I’ll let him have his say, as it is extraordinarily well argued, and save my comments for the end. I think he is compassionate, generous, thorough, thoughtful, and wrong. But first, here is his Comment of the Day on  “Ethics Dunces: Penn State Students.”

“As a current college student, prior victim of child molestation, and generally reasonable person, I feel inclined to give my two cents. Having read the grand jury report personally, I am shaken. Unless you are familiar with the shame and humiliation of a situation like this–even if you are familiar–the sheer quantity of these attacks… beyond words. Had any Penn State staff understood the thoughts running through this man’s mind, this comment would’ve started “As a current toddler…” Anyone who knows that the sexual abuse of children is occurring and acts so callously as to downplay it and sweep it under the rug has no place in modern society. That’s as nicely as I can put that.

“With as much emotion and sympathy as I harbor for the young men who’ve endured through this, it pains me to read the bickering and finger-pointing I’ve encountered in comment threads like this. And while it is normally in my nature to grab my trident for a healthy round of devil’s advocate with the popular and most often intelligent opinion, I cannot help but side with Joe Paterno in this matter. I’m about as far removed from sports as a sociable college male can get; I will not rally for a few chants of WE ARE… at the end of this post. If you’re going to scrutinize the choices he made in reference to the 2002 incident, be thorough enough to consider this: He wasn’t thinking about slandering Sandusky, he wasn’t concerned about his career or standing in the community. The decision of if/when/to whom this should be reported wasn’t calculated with pro’s and con’s.

“When you’re told that your long time friend and ex-coworker was just seen sodomizing a defenseless 10-year-old in the showers, you won’t believe it. To accept that statement at face value and accept it as truth, your psyche has to take the blow that you have been duped by this monster for the 28 years you’ve spent trusting and working with him. You could grow up on a diet of humble pie, and that’s still a mouthful you will choke on. It will surface in your conscience as confusion, disbelief, some anxiety. Without a precedent model of behavior, the default heuristic comes into play. Under stress, when forced to make a rapid and uninformed decision, you default. You turn around, find the man/woman in charge, and point the problem in the right direction. And once that person turns to you and confirms that he/she will handle the situation, you consider it done, because it’s easier and less stressful. You’re human, don’t forget it. This doesn’t automatically qualify you as a cold child-rapist empathizer.

“To provide a small anecdote: I witnessed a man, shorter and lighter in build than myself, run out of a restaurant he had obviously just robbed. I will tell you, the thought of chasing him down and exacting justice… all sorts of macho satisfaction. That’s the American spirit right there. But the first real thought that came to mind was: When I do catch him, then what? Am I going to beat him, take the money back for the owner, tie his wrists with my shoelace and wait for back-up? You can say its the more morally correct choice, but in context, it’s absurd. I walked into the restaurant, asked the owner if they were alright, left my phone number if they needed a witness, and left. Should I be blamed for the robbery?

“I don’t even blame Curly and Spanier. They’re motives were probably more aligned with self-preservation, and they did violate the law, but they obviously lacked the understanding of scope we have before us. They’ll pay whatever fees and sentences they receive, and continue on their merry way, Sandusky will die lonely and miserable in isolation wherever they decide to stick him. I can’t say everyone’s happy, but at least they’re accounted for.”

My comments:

1.    First of all, a brave and impressive post. Not all college students are wasting their time, clearly; this gives me hope. Obviously, the writer doesn’t attend Penn State, whose protesting students in the wake of Paterno’s firing last night proved that their values have been so addled and their reasoning abilities so neglected by the school’s toxic, football obsessed culture that they are incapable  of rational thought.

2.    It is unusual to see the perspective of someone who has suffered abuse that most people cannot imagine to use that point of view to excuse their failure to stop someone else from suffering such abuse. I think it’s carrying the benefit of the doubt far beyond what is called for. I don’t have to be raped to know it is wrong, terrible, and that everyone has a duty to prevent it to their full  ability to do so.

3.    I take issue with the term “bickering,” and more issue with “finger pointing.” The latter is a pejorative way to describe the necessary, indeed essential task of addressing who is responsible when a system fails and when children are hurt because individuals ignore their societal duties. Assigning accountability and justifying it is the only way to learn and improve.

4.    Even if Paterno was shocked into classic denial by McQueary’s report, he still had been told that a child was molested; he still had to take steps to show it wasn’t true. “Shock” is not an excuse for a leader failing his obligations, or an adult failing to take the necessary action when he suspects or is told that a child is in danger. I have been in situations when an informant reports atrocious conduct by someone I trusted. You assess the credibility of the informant and his demeanor. There was no reason not to believe McQueary—he was upset, it was a report he would not make if he didn’t have to, and the events he reported are not subject to innocent interpretation. Paterno had a duty to question McQueary, and that would have told him that this was serious and possibly, indeed probably, criminal. Paterno is no kid: he must have had many experiences where he was shocked at the dark sides of friends and colleagues who he discovered were capable of cruelty, perversion, hate and violence. For all the writer’s insight and careful analysis, he’s assessing Paterno from the perspective of a college student’s life experience. After 8 decades, you think a bit differently, and are supposed to have accumulated some wisdom.

5.    I don’t think he was unable to believe the account. If he didn’t believe it, why did he report it at all? In fact, I think it is very likely that Paterno knew or strongly suspected Sandusky’s proclivities, and had been hoping he was wrong. The incident in 2002, we now know, was not the first—university police had investigated a prior incident. My guess is that Paterno knew about it. My guess is that these suspicions were among the reasons why Paterno told Sandusky that he would never be coach at Penn State, prompting the assistant’s retirement. This is just speculation on my part, but these scenarios are far more plausible than assuming that Paterno, faced with a credible assistant recounting his witnessing a violent rape and accusing a former Paterno colleague of unspeakable acts, would conclude he was making the whole thing up (Why???) and keep McQueary on as an assistant! Who employs a liar/hysteric/nutcase? If he didn’t believe McQueary, then McQueary had to go—11 years later, he’s still working for Paterno. (Oh…by all accounts, Sandusky and Paterno are not personally close, and never were.)

6.    Stopping a robbery in progress is not an applicable analogy…to anything. It is beyond the competence of most people, for one thing. For another, it is unreasonably dangerous. Police don’t want you doing it—it gets bystanders killed. A robber is armed. None of this applied to a naked man raping a boy in the shower. Quite possibly, all McQueary had to do was shout, or be forceful. He’s no wimp—he’s a young, strapping guy, who was about 40 years younger than a naked, wet rapist.

7.    Excusing Spanier et al. is a smoking gun for me here. The writer is trying so hard to see the situation from the other perspective—an admirable effort—that he’s blinding himself. Sure, they don’t grasp the enormity like a child abuse victim, but they aren’t idiots. “A child was being raped by this guy who has a foundation for kids to supply himself with victims” is pretty easy to grasp without personal experience, at least enough to conclude “I have a duty to the kids.” They were thinking, like the idiotic students they have tainted, “Penn State! Penn State!”

8.    The points raised in the comment are important to consider. And reject.

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