Friday, July 13, 2012

Are Bystanders Ever Innocent? Or, WTF Happened at Penn State?

So because I read higher education news and "regular" news today my feed is again doubly full of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno and Penn State, now that the results of the Freeh report have been released.  The whole affair makes me sick: that someone would do that any child, that they covered it up for so long, and that (big surprise! revelation from the Freeh reporrt!) the reason they covered it up was fear of bad publicity that might hurt the university and its precious football program.

I hope no one paid a lot of money for that report.

Having worked at two large institutions of higher education, I can say with some authority that this kind of thing isn't all that uncommon: not the molestation part (because I don't know of anything like this that has happened elsewhere), but the cover-up part, and the willingness to turn a blind eye to some really appalling (in this case, criminal) behavior.  Universities do have reputations to protect, and one spate of bad publicity about one isolated incident--even if it turns out to be false--can do years of damage, to enrollment, to admissions, to programs that had nothing to do with the incident in question.  What concerns me is the culture at work in such situations: the culture that suggests that it's OK to be a bystander when something bad is happening, as long as the means justify the ends, as long as the body count isn't too high.

Then again, aren't there other instances of this just about everywhere?  Think back to the allegations against the Catholic Church.  About how high up the denial and cover-up went.  Or instances of sexism and other kinds of discrimination, in which not just the people in charge but everyone simply turns their backs on bullies and abusers, either by convincing themselves that the behavior isn't really as bad or hurtful as it seems, or by reassuring themselves that help will arrive from somewhere else, or dismissing it as part of the natural order of things, as part of the culture of the organization.  Boys will be boys, after all, right?

No, actually, they don't need to be.

But wait.  Think about this in really small terms.  Consider all of the times maybe you've passed someone by on the road who is stranded because of a flat tire, or engine failure, or who knows what.  How many times you've thought, "oh, that person has a cell phone, he'll be fine."  Or how about this: has there been a time when you've seen teenagers mistreating an animal, or bullying another child, or damaging someone else's property and you didn't step in to say anything, because you didn't think it was your place to do so?  Think this is different than someone in a position of authority covering up appalling behavior?  In some respects, yes, because you aren't formally charged with the responsibility to protect your (property, animal, whatever) ... but in other respects, I would argue, no.  The same bystander logic applies.  And the reason that the behavior exists at the top, the reason we value reputations over responsibility, starts with the way we decide to either turn away and pretend innocence, or do something about injustice.

There's that famous saying attributed to Rabbi Hillel, one of the most famous scholars in Jewish history: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

In my book, if you're a bystander, you might as well be holding the smoking gun, whether or not you actually fired it.

The problem is not just the Joe Paternos of the world.  Because they didn't start out as leaders.  They started out as nobodies.  And someone taught them that it was acceptable to stand by and watch.  If we want a world that is safe, where people care for us, we can't afford to teach those kinds of lessons.  Not in business, not in higher education, not in schools. 

Not anywhere.
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  1. The whole cover-up was sickening. The worst thing was that none of the officials ever even thought to look into which children were being abused, and their inaction led to more children being abused.

    I thought this article was interesting, because my children are at the whistleblower stage but soon they will enter the "good soldier" phase, and I want them to keep their whistleblower instincts intact.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with this statement:

    In my book, if you're a bystander, you might as well be holding the smoking gun, whether or not you actually fired it.

    It is true that sometimes people stand by and do nothing, but sometimes that stand by and do nothing to protect themselves. I have watched people deface others' property and done nothing, because I was scared for my own safety. It was late and no one was around to help me if things went awry. I chose my own safety over someone's property and I would hope that if someone saw my own car getting broken into or my house being vandalized that they would protect themselves instead of hurting me. Did I call the police and report what I saw? Yes. But I doubt it did any good.

    So I don't know if I really believe that in all cases doing nothing is the same as perpetrating the crime. While I do believe that people should help others when they are able, there are so many instances when helping others might mean grave danger, or even death, for themselves.

    Of course it is a thin line sometimes, what constitues enough danger to oneself to stand by. Is the possibility of one's reputation or livelihood being ruined enough to stay mum? I don't think so but I also have never been in that situation. I think it's really hard to stand up against injustice when your life could be forever ruined for doing it.

    I'm not saying the scandal should have been covered up at all. I honestly don't know much what happened there and who knew what and what they did or didn't do. I do know that it's very easy to say what one should or shouldn't have done when they are reading about it in retrospect, and when nothing of theirs is at stake.

    I guess in the end you have to decide, is what I'm saving worth what could be lost, on the grand scale of the world. Are material possessions worth more than someone's safety? I would say no, not ever. Is a child's safety worth more than someone's professional reputation, I would say yes, always. But there are so many situations that are harder to determine, or at least I assume there would be. Maybe I'm being selfish here. Maybe I'm just playing devil's advocate, but I don't think it's as cut and dry as you claim.

  3. @jjiraffe: Love the way this article puts it. BUT: wish it had some more concrete thoughts about *how* to teach respect for authority while still questioning it. (And ... how to get authority to see that questioning as non-threatening!) Thanks for the link!

    @Esperanza: It's true ... sometimes there's a lot at stake in taking a stand. And you have to weigh the consequences. But one, I would argue that in the situation you described, you were not a bystander, because you took action, whether or not it resulted in catching the perpetrators. I guess what I'm arguing is that there is always SOMETHING you can do. (In my professional case, for example, it was leaving my job to demonstrate that I wasn't OK with intelligent women being bullied. I couldn't have done that if my husband couldn't support us for a little while. But then I would have had to find something else to do, if I was going to be able to get up and face myself in the mirror every morning.) And that many times, we simply choose not to do it. I stand by the "put your own oxygen mask on first" approach ... but after that, for me, all bets are off. But you're right ... it's more nuanced than I've made it sound here.

  4. Great post!

    I think it's a shame that the 'mind your own business' culture is so pervasive that we have to har laws to protect people who ARE trying to help, like Good Samaritan laws. When I first became CPR and first aid certified, the important thing was actually learning CPR, and as the years went by, we spent more and more time on the preamble of learning the spiel, 'I'm certified in first aid and CPR, may I help you?', learning about Good Samaritan laws, learning about implied consent, essentially, knowing when it is or isn't okay to actually attempt to save a life. It just blows my mind.

    I was actually penalized when I worked for the 2010 Census for being a whistleblower, along with two of my coworkers. They don't like calling you back for another phase of work if you try to uphold privacy laws. Who knew that doing your job as you were trained to would be a problem?

    So much food for thought here.

  5. I've had a huge issue with a lot of collegiate sports, nd this particular situation is reflective of so much I find wrong with the climate of big sports, like football and basketball. Several years ago I read a book called "Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime," and I was APPALLED at what kind of horrible student behavior is tolerated and excused in the name of preserving the reputation of a school's team (read: the school's money). Kids had histories of armed robbery and domestic violence, and yet they were allowed to remain on the sports team with NO consequences. Again and again. This creates a sense of feeling that you are immune to consequences, that rules don't apply to you. And these kids carry this crappy attitude and dangerous, unchecked behavior into adulthood. And it's because the people who had the authority to challenge and mitigate that behavior abdicated all responsibility for the sake of the college sport. It was such an eye-opening and angering read, that book.

    Anyway, I immediately recalled this book when the Sandusky stuff came to light. Where are the boundaries? Where was the accountability? It makes me so heavy-hearted to think that some university's reputation was determined to have a greater value than a child's right to safety and protection. Argh.

    And I agree with your take on Esperanza's situation--she did act by calling the police. Intervening doesn't mean that YOU have to do it yourself. There are appropriate authorities to address those kinds of things, and alerting them is the very definition of intervening, of speaking up. I wouldn't have approached those people either.

  6. It also makes me sick. And it reminds me, to a certain degree, about the way universities were able to cover up cases of rape. In the days before they were required by law to report them to the police. (I was at university during those days and I know women who were chewed up and spat out by that horrible system).

    I think what shocked me particularly in the days after the case became known, was the reaction of supporters/students/alumni/football fans. That blind adoration by the people who marched to the Paternos' front door to show their "support". Without all the facts, without perhaps understanding just what was at stake. That's the part that really made me sick.

  7. You and Jjraffe are really rocking the thought-provoking/tough questions posts during NaBloPoMo and making me think way to much on a Saturday... ;)

    When I was a TA in grad school in a major that attracts athletes, I was shocked by what the school/professors were willing to do to accommodate student athletes that would never fly for any other students at the university.

    I agree that as bystanders we do have a responsibility on some level to do something. But I also get how, especially in certain instances, that can be tricky. I am proud of the fact that most of the time I go above and beyond to try to help others and stand up for what is right.

    The Penn State and Catholic Church scandals make me sick. Yet I still choose to be a practicing catholic and believe that one way to impact change is to work on it from within, in our little corners of the world.

    It is frustrating to witness things that aren't right and that we don't have control over. When I was a TA there was also an incident where we caught students cheating on an exam. I went to the prof and he basically said, there wasn't much he could do and after years at the school he didn't think it was worth trying to take disciplinary action. I was dumbfounded, but also realized this was not a fight that I could or should try to pick on my own, if my supervisor wasn't on board/willing to help/support me.

    It definitely made me more cynical about some aspects of the higher education system.

    Thank you for another interesting post and for asking questions that encourage us all to think about our actions and intentions, especially when it comes to helping others.

  8. @Kathy: I've seen many professors not prosecute students who are caught cheating, because the system is too cumbersome. It's often made me wonder whether perhaps it's time to change the system ... when we don't feel safe/empowered to take action to fight injustice, what kind of a system do we really have? It's tricky, to walk the line between respecting and questioning authority ...

    @Adele: Definitely a similar kind of situation. I wonder if in other kinds of institutions you'd see the same display of loyalty and affection ... for sure, alumni have changed their tune now, but it makes you wonder ... what kind of power did this person have over the culture of the university that made him so beloved, and his followers so blind?

    @Trinity: Trinity, you make a great point here ... that it's not just about feeling good about your university, but about the bottom line. Which makes the situation more generalizable, unfortunately. How many times do people stand by just so that the (company, organization, whatever) can protect the bottom line? And is that money really worth people's dignity, their possessions, their lives? This lesson, unfortunately, is learned too early in life, I think.

    @April: I didn't realize that about CPR. You're right; it's not just a culture of passive bystanding, but active ignorance. I'm sorry you were penalized for doing the right thing! (And: I'd love to return the favor of commenting, but I'm getting a password-protected message for your blog/profile. It's OK if you'd rather not share it, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything.)

  9. We lived in the Middle East for a couple of years and our local friends complained that everyone was all up in everyone's business. The complaining was half-hearted, because it also meant being part of a cherished community.

    My husband and I remarked how much we, as Americans, valued privacy. And we wondered just what it would take in our culture vs theirs for someone to intervene in an interaction.

    This post made me remember that conversation. In some cultures, I think stepping in is expected, even for what we'd call minor things.

    But in ours, in which we have fenced yards, tinted car windows, and other defining lines, I think we are just less likely to step in. There is a spoken (and unspoken) more to mind our own business.

    Which isn't exactly the same as the Penn State or the Catholic Church problems, but maybe is the same about flat tires or witnessing unacceptable behavior. Just how appalling would it have to be for you, for me, to speak up?

  10. I missed this when you posted it.

    I hear you about academia. I was in grad school for 6 years and saw some really nasty cover-ups, people accepting bad behavior from tenured professors because they were powerful, etc. It's really horrifying.

    Your post made me remember an incident from college. A friend and I were visiting Bozeman, MT, and found a man lying on the grass next to the sidewalk. My friend wanted to make sure he was alright and I wanted to keep moving. Thankfully, she won out and it turns out the guy was in a diabetic coma. We called 911, ambulance came, and I'm guessing he recovered. I try to keep this in mind all the time...I can be the one who makes a difference if something bad is going on.

    Great post!

  11. This is my first time visiting your blog. I followed a link listed in Mel's weekly blog round-up and I will definitely be back to read more.

    As a non-native of the state, I have found myself living in Pennsylvania for the last 3+ years in a small town only about 45 minutes away from Penn State. It is interesting to me to see the difference between the national media and people's reactions and the local media and people's reactions. For the local people, Penn State is heaven and Joe Paterno is a saint, a grandfatherly figure, a role model, etc. They just can't understand how any of this could be true. For me, I am just sickened and outraged that this happened for so long to so many people and yet many knew about it and could have stopped it. I hope the NCAA makes a strong example of Penn State and makes their decision soon. Although the NCAA decision will not affect any of the coaches, players or administrators who were present during the scandal and cover-up, it will send a message to all other schools that this will not be tolerated and that it has to stop. I just hope that the NCAA has the balls to do it (pun intended, since it deals with sports!)

  12. Preach on, sister, preach on!

  13. @Lavender: Interesting ... I suspect there are more "invasive" cultures than ones like ours ... I, too, worry about just what it would take for us to step in.

    @Detour: thank you for sharing that story ... what a good reminder about how important it is to step in when we can!

    @gailcanoe: thanks for visiting! I'd love to return the favor if you have a blog, too. And yes: I hope that the NCAA makes an example out of Penn State. But I also understand the deep denial ... the same happens when we find anyone who was seemingly trustworthy has betrayed that trust. Admitting it's true implicates us somehow; as if WE were the bad judges of character.


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