First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
First up: Advocating for action to stop sexual abuse as it occurs, and then strenuous laws aimed at preventing it from ever happening again, comes across as morally superior BECAUSE IT IS. If it’s now out-of-bounds smug to say we should as a society better protect the powerless from those who prey upon them, smug sounds pretty good to me.
Second: It’s entirely possible to say that someone in such-and-such position should have done something, while also acknowledging that in that same position, you don’t know what you would have done.
But even if you can’t say precisely what you would have done, you should at least know whatshould be done. And every time you say it out loud, you move us all a little farther away from the place where we riot in favor of an institution that enabled sexual abuse. The entirepoint of talking about the people who didn’t see, or saw and didn’t act, or acted but not strongly enough, is to reinforce the idea that passivity in the face of evil isnot okay.
So of course along comes David Brooks to talk about how that’s just a normal human reaction, so, you know, whatevs. It’s interesting that he assumes that all outrage on the part of “a zillion commentators” (obviously notthis very good one that makes the same point without the smarm and judgment) comes from a place of vanity. What else could possibly motivate such outrage?
Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How couldtheyhave let this happen?”
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
Brooks prefaces this, his oh-so-brave contrarian stance, with a few grafs that blither on about how we used to acknowledge our sinfulness but now kids have self-esteem so we can’t do that anymore. Or something.
As to David’s other examples: The problem in the wake of our torturing innocent people in secret prisons was not insufficient self-examination. It was thatwe were torturing innocent people in secret prisons and needed to not ever be doing that. David Brooks, now so concerned that we turned away from our inner angels, spent much of the past decade studiously not mentioning theinnocent man shipped off to Syria to be tortured.
I assume he didn’t say anything at the time because he didn’t want to appear superior.