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The Real Problem at Penn State

I have been thinking some more about the Penn State case, and why McQueary and Paterno did what they did.  And I have come to the conclusion that most commentators are overlooking a rather obvious contributing factor: they liked Sandusky.


McQueary grew up in State College; his family was friends with Sandusky, and of course, Sandusky had coached him.  Paterno had worked with Sandusky closely for years.  And if you think about what you would have done in a situation where you caught someone you love and respect in that position, is it really so obvious, as the chest thumping punditariat proclaims, that you would have leaped into the shower, beaten the snot out of him, and frog marched him to the police station after you rescued the kid?  Really?  You'd have done that to your father, your favorite uncle, your best friend, a beloved mentor?

Think about what that really entails: overcoming all the shock and horror, the defensive mechanisms that make you question what you're really seeing.  The total destruction of a long relationship as soon as you name it out loud and accuse him to his face.  The actual physical logistics of grabbing a naked sixty year old man, detaching him from that child, and then pounding on him for a while as a ten year old you don't know watches.  The fact that the minute you go to the police, you will have utterly ruined this man's life: he will be jobless, friendless, and branded as the worst sort of pervert by everyone in the country--oh, and also, in protective custody so that the other inmates in jail don't, like, kill him.

That's a pretty huge emotional hurdle to leap in the ten seconds or so that McQueary had to do the right thing.  Isn't it quite understandable that your instinct might be to get away?  To look for some way that didn't have to involve jail?  Wouldn't it be a huge relief to tell your superiors and let someone else take care of it?

Andrew Sullivan listens to a similar argument from a reader, and dismisses it:

Yes it fucking does. If you see anyone - even your own father - raping a ten year old in the showers, the first thing you do is stop it yourself. You don't even call the cops right away. You clock the rapist in the head or drag the boy out of his clutches. I'm so sick of these excuses for the inexcusable. McQueary is as depraved as all the others who stood by and did nothing.

I think Andrew is quite right about the right thing to do in that situation.  But I find this rather blithe.


Have you ever polled your friends about how many of them would have been sheltering Jews in Nazi Germany?  In the casual conversations I've had, the percentage of people who say that they would of course have helped runs somewhere between 85-95%.  Actual number: about 10,000, according to Yad Vashem.  Of course, that number is incomplete, and includes only those who actually risked their lives.  But multiply it by 10; multiply it by 100.  You're still at what, 1% of the people who had the opportunity to defy the Nazis as they accomplished the most comprehensive ethnic cleansing in history?

Was this because 99% of Germans, Poles, French, Dutch, and other peoples were "depraved"?  Or were they frightened people in a brutal state, with rather ordinary levels of cowardice and indifference to the plight of others?

Oh, well, that's an extreme example, you may say; McQueary was at no risk of life and limb.  Fair enough, but one can name dozens of less dangerous situations where only a small minority actually does the right thing, but everyone believes that they woulda.  Consider, for example, child abuse (sexual or otherwise) in families.  How often is the offender actually reported to the police, and how often do the families simply keep the kids away from Grandpa because, well, you know.  I'm sure at some level they worry about other kids Grandpa might be touching--but they also worry about what would happen to Grandpa in jail, and the rest of his family in the court of public opinion.  

When you find out that someone you know is a pedophile, that doesn't erase your knowledge that they're also a human being.  It does in the public mind, of course, but it's very different when you know them.

We are evolved to live in small groups, with very deep loyalty to the other members.  In most situations, this is in fact a completely laudable sentiment.  But this is the dark side: it is very hard for us to betray the members of those small groups to which we belong, particularly if we have strong emotional bonds to that person.  There is a scientific name for people who are not bound by these sorts of ties: sociopaths.  And as I understand it, they do not, in fact, make excellent agents of justice, because they don't care about the victims, either.

Every time some group protects one of its own, there is a chorus of shock and horror at the unthinkable venality of cops protecting other cops who fix parking tickets, or gang members who won't snitch, or doctors who close ranks around a borderline incompetent doctor.  And yet, my sense is that these same people are often quite sympathetic to the excesses of personal and group loyalty . . . in groups they belong to.  When EM Forster said, "I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country," the implication was rather stupid and horrible (especially since he said it when war with Nazi Germany was looming for his country) . . . and yet, it says something very real about the way humans actually act.

Thus when I hear everyone confidently proclaiming that they would have done the right thing in McQueary's place, I am suspicious that this is actually true.  It's easy for all of us to imagine pounding Sandusky because he's a much-reviled stranger.  But he wasn't, to McQueary.  He was someone he liked, respected, maybe even loved.

Can you really be so sure that you'd have stepped in right then?  Can you honestly say that you've never cut slack for people you like and respect, and maybe people who also happen to have some impact on your career?  You've never kept silent while they were doing something that you were pretty sure was really wrong?  I'm not talking about looting the company coffers or molesting children, necessarily--maybe it's the friend who cheated on his wife, or the one who's occasionally rather nasty to his children, or I don't know, a political administration who you like but who also does some stuff that is really pretty bad.  If you have found yourself making excuses to let them--or yourself--slide, then you know basically how McQueary felt.

That doesn't excuse what McQueary did.  His reaction may be common, but it was still wrong.  And we encourage others to do the right thing by forcefully declaring what that right thing is, and shaming those who fail to live up to even a very difficult standard.

But categorizing his act as depraved and incomprehensible is unhelpful.  It's unfortunately normal, and entirely comprehensible.  Saying otherwise allows us to write off what happened at Penn State to evil people, or a "culture" full of nasty, macho football lovers.  It allows us to avoid confronting the real problem, which is that people are evolved to form intense bonds that often trump more abstract principles . . . and also, to be very good at coming up with excuses for not doing what they should at great personal cost to themselves.

Of course, that's not neat and convenient: we don't get to think that the problem is localized to far off people who are nothing like our wonderful friends and relations.  But I think it's perhaps more likely to help us prevent such happenings in our own backyard.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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