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.