Friday, November 11, 2011

You Are Not Immune to Irrational Tribal Loyalties

...and neither am I, as it turns out. I'm a Penn State alum. In fact, just as I'm a second-generation atheist, I'm a second-generation Penn Stater. I frankly don't even care about football and don't know (for example) if Penn State was in a bowl last year. But that doesn't matter. Know why? Growing up, my room was blue and white. My family had blue and white cars. I arranged my father's funeral to take place in a Penn State conference room, and scattered his ashes over Mt. Nittany. No criticism of Joe Paterno was tolerated in my house, and my mother still has the autograph he signed for her in 1970, in a venerated place in a family photo album.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

It's hard to explain to somebody not familiar with the world of college football, or with Pennsylvania culture and politics, what this scandal means. The closest I can come is that this is Pennsylvania's and college football's private 9/11. At one point Penn State named a new building after a former university president, and people grumbled it should have been the Paterno building; never mind, I would say, because we already have the Paterno Library, and besides when Joe retires, they'll rename the state Paternovania. You probably think I'm kidding about that second part, and I'm not. There would have been a serious campaign.

Besides the obvious lessons from this tragedy, which you can get from any sports media outlet, there's a more subtle one for us would-be rationalists. All those tribal loyalties we get programmed with before we're old enough to question them, supernatural or not, are dug in very, very deep. And now I have first-hand experience. I have a deep-in-my-gut reaction to all this (which I know is wrong) that goes something like this: "Penn State football can do no wrong! The press is exaggerating! The kids are making it up!" Yes, it's really that paleolithic. And of course I know it's not true. But I want it to be. Desperately. As a further example, if you're following the details of the story, you know there's a grand jury report out there that you can read, with graphic nauseating details about what Jerry Sandusky did. I won't read it. I have no doubt that it's true, that it's a necessary part of getting justice. But it would hurt too much.

So now, the next time there's a Catholic sex-abuse scandal and not-even-that-serious Catholics make excuses and get upset, or there's an attack by a Muslim terrorist and we're reassured that Islam is a Religion of Peace and you're an Islamophobe for daring to criticize it...I'll understand a little better. I won't think it's right - in fact my experience is making me realize how insidious this tendency is. In its most severe form it allows and perpetuates tragedies like what happened - and maybe having experienced this, when I naively thought I was free of any such in-group savagery, will help me talk some sense into a few more of these folks. (The alarming parallels are explored further here.)

In the meantime, it bears pointing out that when this same thing happened in the Catholic Church, once, twice, a hundred times - have we ever seen an outcry and an investigation of this magnitude? Have we ever seen such decisive action from the Church's governance mechanisms as was taken by the Penn State Board of Trustees and the Pennsylvania state government, once the information got outside the inner circle where it was protected for far too long? No, we have not. That doesn't un-do the damage done to the victims, but this response, to a horrible crime by a transparent authority that recognizes no one is above the law, is better than anything the Church has mounted so far. Let's hope that anywhere else in the world there's a code of silence allowing the vulnerable to be exploited, that criminals see that these painful moral lessons are gradually waking us up.

It's hard to imagine what, if anything, is appropriate to do at this point. But it seems that hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the crimes hanging their heads in shame and hiding will have less positive effect than those same hundreds of thousands doing what they can to increase awareness. If anything positive comes out of this, it'll be to remind us in general that the buck stops with each of us, and specifically that sexual abuse remains a widespread problem. So whether you're a Penn Stater, or a football fan, or whatever, think about wearing blue on Saturday, because the Blue Ribbon campaign is for child abuse prevention.

No comments: