The past couple days I’ve been reading comments on John Scalzi’s response to the reports of abuse coming out of Penn State: Omelas State University. (Contains serious cussing. Utterly appropriately in this case, IMHO.) One can debate just how accurately the Omelas metaphor does or doesn’t apply, but that aside, I do think he’s pretty much dead on.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about the comments to his post, which come down to three things, to my reading:
1) There’s risk involved in stepping in to help someone who needs help, especially if it means standing up against someone of stature. That risk can include loss of career, livelihood, and community respect. That makes stepping in frightening, and means people will shy away from it.
2) Seeing people doing horrible things to other people is also horrifying enough to us that our first instinct is often to freeze, rather than to act, even without all those other risks. This is human, and few of us are immune to it.
Some of the comments go on to say that given 1) and 2) we shouldn’t be surprised that adults failed to step in, with varying degrees of sympathy or lack thereof. But other comments go on to say:
3) That 1) and 2) may indeed be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a deep moral obligation to get past these things, find your courage, and act anyway.
That’s the thing I keep coming back to, too. Doing the right thing does involve risk–but nothing about that releases us from the deep moral obligation to do the right thing, especially in a case like this where there so clearly were right things to be done, and men with varying degrees of power failed to do them.
One could almost use it as a guideline for moral action: understand that 1) and 2) are true, and then resolve to do 3) anyway.
There’s another thing I keep thinking, when I hear the reasons that maybe acting wasn’t all that simple. About how we like to talk a lot in our culture about what it means to be a man, and the definitions of same often tend to involve physical strength, which is why sports and displays of physical courage and power are so often seen as a particularly make in the first place.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that courage, power, and strength are all actually human things and not male ones … if we’re looking for a definition of what it means to be a man, well, “uses his power to step in and protect the powerless” would be a pretty good start. My understanding is that it’s among the more standard definitions, even. It’s certainly one we use over and over again in the stories our society tells.
Which is maybe one reason why reading excuse-making for a group of fairly powerful men in fairly stereotypical male roles who fail to do this on account of how risks are risky, and on account of how they also happen to play good football (and along the way, yes, bring money and prestige to their community) is particularly infuriating and disconcerting and more than a little bit frightening.
(Other relevant links: Turn the Car Around, C.C. Finlay’s The Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Cover-up: A Timeline, and Jon Stewart’s take.)