Comment of the Day: Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

Paterno's inaction: bliviousness...or willful blindness?

In the ongoing debate among Joe Paterno sympathizers (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) and those who believe the late Penn State icon failed his ethical obligations miserably and deserved all the criticism he received, several interesting themes have arisen, including whether “obliviousness” is an excuse, whether critics are engaging in “wahlberging”–that is, claiming that they would have handled a difficult situation better when it costs them nothing to make the claim—and whether the Sandusky incident should be permitted to cloud Paterno’s legacy at Penn State, or should be over-shadowed by it. In this Comment of the Day, Proam covers these topics in response to a commenter who wrote, “Other posters who have tried to in any way justify Paterno’s actions/lack of action – GET REAL!”  Here is his comment, to the post, “Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service.” I’ll have some reactions at the end.

“…We are real, and we have gotten (and have been, and remain) quite constantly and reliably real. Denial is a marvelous thing, and an insidious thing. People practice it, including every one of us posting here and Joe Paterno. For better or worse, denial (among other mental exercise) enables obliviousness. It is unjust to deny the existence of obliviousness, unfair to deny the possibility that obliviousness is a cause of particular action (or inaction), and unkind to jump to a conclusion that obliviousness had no bearing on Paterno or on his involvement in the Sandusky case.

“I am convinced that your post further reflects the “wahlberging” of Paterno in this blog that has tainted the critiquing of his actions and inactions in the context of ethics. We readers here suffered through the denial being practiced by those who dropped in to post (so courageously – that is sarcasm) their wahlberging of McQueary. The discussion of Paterno’s ethics has reached a point where people are jumping to conclusions and wahlberging him as well.

“[You write…] ‘Animals will kill to protect their offspring from harm. It’s instinctive. Where have our protective instincts gone?’

“I was going to say more in response to that, in the context of abortion. But I’ll just say, the advancement of ethics in our society would be set back even further, if the constructiveness in the legacy of Joe Paterno (despite the Sandusky scandal) was denied and not allowed to live on.”

Here’s the problem, Proam: denial is a common human response, just as fear and cowardice are. It isn’t an excuse. Wives who know or should know that their daughters are being sexually abused by their fathers may not intervene because of denial; that doesn’t mitigate their ethical and moral failure one iota. There are always reasons people fail their ethical duties. So Paterno was in denial. His allowing Sandusky to continue molesting boys is all right then? More all right? Not so bad? Excusable? Denial is a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with unpleasant problems. It’s human, sure, but it’s not admirable. It doesn’t reduce accountability.

The obliviousness argument is even worse. Joe Paterno, in his 9th decade, told interviewer Sally Jenkins that he never knew that men raped other men. Personally, I don’t believe it: Paterno, a devout Catholic, had no idea what all that fuss about priests and little boys was? He was never curious? He never asked someone more savvy in the ways of the world, “Gee, what were those priests doing to those kids, anyway? Hitting them? Tickling them? Making scary faces? What?” ? Is that plausible? Joe Pa was…an idiot? That’s hardly ennobling, but I think it’s also unlikely to the vanishing point.  If his ignorance of male rape is true, however, then this was willful ignorance, and I would put his obliviousness to Sandusky’s conduct in the same category. It too, like denial, is a serious character flaw. We have the all-time best (or worst) example of willful ignorance in the behavior of German citizens (and American government officials) during the Holocaust. They knew, but they didn’t “know,” because if they allowed themselves to “know” they couldn’t live with themselves. The proper response to acknowledging one’s willful ignorance, when it results in harm to others, is shame and remorse. Willful ignorance may be human, but it represents the mind choosing to ignore information that creates an obligation to act. Why Proam thinks this preserves virtue is beyond me. The obligation still exists.

Those who criticize Paterno for not taking on the human duty of making certain that the children were safe are not wahlberging. [Proeam does get bonus points for using the Ethics Alarms-introduced term, however.] Saying that you would charge into the shower the second you saw naked Sandusky with a child and duke it out with him is wahlberging, as are most after-the-fact criticisms of people, like Mike McQueary, who didn’t respond properly in an instant of crisis. This wasn’t a shocking scene in a shower that was over in minutes. Paterno had nine years to do something. He had the power do more. He had the motivation and the obligation to do more. He didn’t, he’s accountable, and it is not only right and fair, but essential for others to say so.

Finally, regarding Paterno’s legacy, the dichotomy is false. It isn’t an either/or proposition. The good Paterno accomplished, the football program he built, the athletes he trained, the university he enhanced, can’t be obliterated by subsequent events and won’t be. He will always get credit for those achievements, just as Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy in continuing to own slaves after writing the Declaration of Independence cannot diminish his achievement in writing the mission statement for the United States of America. Paterno’s status as a cultural hero, however, will be permanently affected by his ethical failures in the Sandusky case, and should be. How much will always be a matter of debate. Richard Nixon did some great things, but his conduct in the Watergate scandal makes it impossible to regard him as a great man. Performer Danny Kaye was a humanitarian and entertained millions with his talents, but he abused almost everyone who ever loved or trusted him in his private life. Is he a role model? No. The character failings were too great.Wonderful career, badly-flawed human being.

Assessing Paterno as a man is and will be difficult. The scar on his legacy was just one episode, but his failure involved harm to children. It came at the end of his life and career, when his judgment may have been less able to meet the challenge, but it also involved the single trait that supposedly distinguished him from all others in his profession: a dedication to courage and ethical virtues. If Joe Pa was who everyone thought he was, wouldn’t he have done something to protect those children? If he didn’t, does that mean that his life was a lie?

These are hard questions. I have my opinion, but they cannot be definitively answered.  What can be said with certainty is that when the time came for Joe Paterno to personally embody the virtues he had preached and taught for decades, he couldn’t do it, and innocents were harmed. For anyone to argue that Paterno isn’t accountable for that failure is itself willful blindness.

9 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa’s Memorial Service

  1. Pingback: Comment of the Day: Ethics Blindness at Joe Pa's Memorial Service … « Ethics Find

  2. Almost entirely fair on all points, Jack. You raised more possibilities for speculation (and, for those so motivated, research) about Paterno. For all we know now, someone could “crack the case” on the man’s culpability, and leave all of us fully satisfied.

    You and I probably differ on where we draw the line between willful and unwillful ignorance, and on when denial is relevant to obliviousness and vice-versa. Even if we discussed further where we draw our respective lines, it’s unlikely either of us would budge.

    “[Denial is] human, sure, but it’s not admirable. It doesn’t reduce accountability.”

    I disagree with you on those. As I said (differently) earlier, “For better or worse, denial is a marvelous thing, and an insidious thing.”

    “Paterno’s status as a cultural hero, however, will be permanently affected by his ethical failures in the Sandusky case, and should be. How much will always be a matter of debate.”

    Agreed, with hope (and some confidence) that your second statement will be disproved.

    “If Joe Pa was who everyone thought he was, wouldn’t he have done something to protect those children?”

    I don’t think that is a fair question. I think a fair but equally tough and more relevant question is, “Did Paterno do everything within his power that his knowledge and understanding should have compelled him to do [to protect those children]?” To you, that question is answered. To me, it remains incompletely answered, but I remain hopeful that it can be definitively answered.

    “…when the time came for Joe Paterno to personally embody the virtues he had preached and taught for decades, he couldn’t do it, and innocents were harmed.”

    Different perspective here: In place of, “…he couldn’t do it,…” I would substitute, “…for reasons or causes not fully known or understood at this time, he failed in some manner,…”

    “For anyone to argue that Paterno isn’t accountable for that failure is itself willful blindness.”

    For anyone to argue that they know what Paterno’s specific failure(s) was(were) is wahlberging.

  3. Paterno had nine years to do something

    Those are the key words. “Do something”. As Thomas Sowell pointed out.

    But political pressures to “do something” have been behind many counterproductive and even dangerous policies.

    And as William A. Levinson pointed out , Paterno had to reconcile two responsibilities

    1) There was a duty to protect children against sexual assault, if McQueary’s story was true.

    2) There also was a duty to not defame an innocent man while exposing the university to a libel or slander suit, if McQueary’s story turned out to be false. In simpler language, there was a duty to not become a loose cannon.

    We have seen- in the cases of Gerald Amirault, Grant Snowden, Timothy Cole, and Duke University- of what can happen when people “do something” with respect to sex crimes. It is not enough to do something, but to do the right thing the right way.

    And contrary to your previous statements that firing Paterno was ethical, that was not what motivated the trustees at all .

    Asked what Paterno did wrong, Surma said: ”I can’t characterize that. We thought because of the difficulties that have engulfed our university, it was necessary to make changes.”

    Here, the Board of Trustees “did something”, without determining the circumstances regarding Joe Paterno’s and Mike McQueary’s actions.

    • The circumstances were directly in front of them. Children were raped, and the university was embarrassed and exposed to liability. Paterno had to be fired I think there’s a good question as to whether McQueary could be fired. His role regarding the university’s failure to act is close to that of a whistleblower.

      • Paterno had to be fired

        And yet, strangely enough, they could not “characterize ” what “Paterno did wrong” at the time they fired him. Also note that this quote was dated about four days after you first posted on thus subject.

        I think there’s a good question as to whether McQueary could be fired. His role regarding the university’s failure to act is close to that of a whistleblower.

        So McQueary gets to have the status of a whistleblower even though he did not blow the whistle for nine years?

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