This article in Scientific American has been making the rounds, in defense of witnesses who don’t intervene, and in particular of Mike Mqueary, the Penn State grad student who walked in on Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy. Basically the piece says; “There’s ambiguity that everyone must take into account, people aren’t sure if they could make things worse, remember the Stanford experiments, blah-blah-blah…”
I have a different interpretation. I think people who fit in, who are team players, and who internalize organizational loyalty above personal ethics are less likely to break ranks even when human decency absolutely demands that ranks be broken. And history is full of sad lessons that this includes most people. Certainly organizational conformity is what we teach children is important.
So thanks for the hotheads; for the misfits who rush in, the protesters, the whistle-blowers, and the people who, without any official mandate, put themselves in harms way. They may not always be right but give them props for trying. Even if they just shut down a racist joke at the office, or call a cop on a fight in progress, or a journalist about a big scandal. Or if they speak up at a meeting. Or, walk into a shower to push a respected leader away from his 10-year-old rape victim.
Years ago a homeless woman was raped and murdered a few blocks from our house. It was a couple college-aged guys; one raped the unconscious woman and then convinced his friend to help him kill her and dismember her body. He later testified that he had wanted to call the police while the woman was being raped, but he was “scared”.
We talked about it as a family. I don’t even remember the discussion exactly but it was something like “who wants to live with the knowledge that they didn’t try to stop it?” If there was ever a good reason to die, or to face consequences, stopping an attack-in-progress is it. And in the age of cell phones, that’s hardly ever necessary. Call the police! You could even send a photo of the crime in progress, I suppose. Imagine the court scene when that evidence is introduced.
And in the case of McQueary, the athletic, fully-clothed grad student confronting a naked man caught in a heinous act, I have a difficult time believing there was any real risk to intervening. Instead he walked away to call his dad and ask; “What should I do”? And the answer was to report it to Joe Paterno, who did diddly. Golly, what else could he have done?
No, I’m sorry, I’m not inclined to accept any of the explanations as exculpatory. Here’s an easy test: If you did what he did, would you feel guilty? Yes courage fails sometimes. We try to understand it, sure; we resolve to do better. Next time. Or the first time.
The Scientific American article linked above says that clarity comes in hindsight. Maybe so. The students at Penn State knew the facts of the case; they had hindsight. But they rioted in defense of the rape-enabler, Joe Paterno. How are they feeling now? What excuses are they making for themselves?
OK, suppose you grant that Penn State is just like any other place. Say they’re everyman and everywoman; a cross-section of Western society. Fine. So that means no more dismissing the feminist talking about rape culture, about sexual harrassment, and about inequality of status. That means listening for a change, and putting on our courage for some change.
- NY Times Timeline of the case
- The pro-Paterno riot did more property damage than all the Occupy Wall Street protests so far. And by the way, the OWS protesters are the ones standing up to corruption, to power, to the criminal financial class.
- Couple thousand students at a big university riot, it means over seventy thousand didn’t. I wonder what the relationship between the two groups will be now? What’s the breakdown of opinion? Will anyone resign their athletic scholarship in protest, for example? And if they did, would others contribute to an alternative scholarship? Anyone know of such a movement?
- I once knew a man who lost his job for reporting to the EPA that his employer, a Christian summer camp, had buried several barrels of chlordane next to the city reservoir. His life worsened, his marriage broke up, he died young. He was a rough individual in many ways, but the entire city of Bloomington, Illinois owes him a debt of gratitude.