Are You Better Than Joe Paterno? David Brooks Thinks You’re (Probably) Not

What would you do if you were Joe Paterno? If it was reported to you […]

Todd Brewer / 11.15.11

What would you do if you were Joe Paterno? If it was reported to you that your assistant coach was sexually abusing a minor, would you act differently? In his recent op-ed for the NY times, David Brooks suggests that the answers to these questions are not as straightforward as we might believe. While we wish to think that we would speak up, the data says otherwise. When pressed to act by a moral dilemma, the vast majority of people do nothing at all (humorously illustrated below). Brooks details numerous explanations psychologists give to this inexplicable human failure: Normalcy Bias, Motivated Blindness, or the Bystander Effect. All of this is really just describes what Christianity has historically called “original sin” or the “Bondage of the Will”. The implication of all this is that most people would have done exactly what Joe Paterno did – turn a blind eye to something he did not want to deal with.

This addresses what is the biggest problem regarding the current non-stop coverage of Joe Paterno’s involvement in the Penn State scandal. The guiding assumption has been that we, the commentators, are qualitatively different from Joe Paterno. We would have acted differently. The more we believe in the inherent goodness of humanity (or better, the goodness of ourselves!), the more likely we are to demonize those who fail to realize this inherent goodness. (And similarly, why do all the pictures of Paterno make him look like a crazy old man?). We point the finger and cast the first stone. All the while, it seems that no one is introspectively asking the $64,000 question, “how can I prevent sexual abuse from happening?”.

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…

People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have 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.