One of the headlines in today’s news is that Joe Paterno has died today (and it appears that he did die and this isn’t just a false report, like last night). While it might be hard to argue that there ever is a good time to die, the timing of Paterno’s death is particularly bad for him. Had he passed away earlier, the news headlines would recite his accomplishments with Penn State, not his role in a child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State (he was fired last year for not reporting to the police the sexual abuse of a minor that was reported to him). A little later, and he would have had some time to enjoy his retirement while the media forgot about the scandal.
While, in retrospect, it is quite clear that Paterno’s decision not to let the police know about Jerry Sandusky was wrong, I don’t think we should be too quick to judge him too harshly. I suspect that, if we were in the exact same position that he was in, most of us would do the exact same thing. What if someone that you barely knew came into your office one day and told you that someone that you did know quite well was sexually abusing a child? Especially if you’ve invested 50 years in your job and didn’t want everything to be wrecked over allegations that, for all you knew, might be false? And if perhaps you grew up in an era in which problems were “resolved” in a different way? And if you trusted higher-ups to make the right decisions? And so on, and so forth?
I suspect that many people who have read to this point are thinking, “Not I! Sure, a lot of people might give in to the dark side in this scenario, but I would have the strength to do what’s right in that situation!” Well, let’s look at another example. Take the following experiment. In this experiment, the subject is led to believe that he is participating in an experiment about learning. He is in the position of a “teacher”, and his task is to drill a “learner” in another room on lists of word pairs, administering an electric shock to the “learner” whenever a wrong answer is given. This shock starts out at a low voltage (15 volts) but become increasingly more powerful with every wrong answer, until it reaches dangerous and eventually lethal levels (450 volts). What the subject doesn’t know is that the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter, is purposely giving wrong answers, and is not really receiving shocks, but is acting as if he were (initially expressing minor discomfort, but later screaming in pain and eventually falling silent as the voltage increases). If the subject expresses concern about shocking the “learner”, he is variously prodded and reassured by the experimenter. Now, what percentage of the general population do you think would be uncaring/sadistic/whatever enough to administer the entire series of shocks up to and including 450 volts?
The experiment described above is actually a famous one that was performed by Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram took a survey before performing the experiment, finding that people believed (on average) that 1.2% of the population would administer the full range of shocks. What he found upon performing the experiment, however, was that 65% of people did, while many of the remaining 35% still administered very painful (or so they thought) voltages. While Milgram’s experiment was about obedience, it also shows that under certain circumstances, we are all capable of doing very bad things. However, while we accept that others can do very bad things, we are often blind to the fact that we (or our friends or relatives) can do very bad things.
There are lots of surveys with curious results that illustrate this phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, U. S. News and World Report took a survey of who their readers felt was most likely to go to heaven; the winner was “Myself”, with 87%, well ahead of Mother Teresa, who was in second place with 79%, or Oprah Winfrey, who was in third place with 66%. Here’s a more recent one: Parents with teenagers, on the average, think that about 60% of teenagers drink, but only 10% think that their teen drinks. And so on and so forth.
So, before we berate others for their flaws, perhaps we should look at ourselves first. This certainly isn’t a new idea; 2,000 years ago, Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NRSV). After all, regardless of what flaws Joe Paterno may have had, these flaws can no longer hurt us. However, our own flaws will continue to hurt us every day for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we should work on those first before we criticize others.
The theme of this post has been really depressing, so I’ll close it off with a positive thought: If we are capable of very bad actions if put in a certain set of circumstances, then we should be capable of very good actions if in another set of circumstances. Our lives and the lives of others would probably be much, much better if we were to work to try to create those circumstances in our lives and the lives of others.