Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Penn State Legacy: The Bystander Effect

Jerry Sandusky in police custody
Conservative columnist David Brooks has a fascinating piece in the NYTimes this morning, examining the outrage millions of people feel about the Penn State atrocities and the ease with which blame is being placed.

At one point, Brooks writes, "So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene." He cites examples of people--in studies--not reacting as they predicted they would when faced with a dilemma.

This was something I thought about briefly the other day when I wrote that unfortunate piece defending Joe Paterno and using a logic that has no standing in this case. I said he was simply following orders. That's an invalid rationalization. I don't know what was/is going through Paterno's mind--nor the minds of anybody else who had knowledge of the crimes, and it appears there were a lot of them--but Brooks' conclusion makes sense to me.

Brooks says people often freeze up when confronted with these uncomfortable situations and do all they can to ignore what is before them, so as to avoid blame. I can see where he's going and I think Brooks has a strong, valid point. I don't know how I would react to a similar situation--direct knowledge of a long-time friend doing something perfectly awful and me responding with instant and practiced noblesse oblige as if it were a conditioned reflex.

In these cases, doing the right thing is rarely instant and reflexive. As Brooks points out, our response is conditioned and often fearful. Why, for example, would scores of people watch a beating or rape without reacting. Are they bad people? No, they probably aren't. Are they confused, scared and perhaps not quite fully aware of what they're seeing? That would be more likely.

I hate what happened in State College, Pa., and I don't just hate it for a man who lived an exemplary life until the moment he was confronted with a horror he should have--in a perfect world--reported to the police without hesitation. Everybody touched by this sad incident has become dirty and their lives are divided into BS (Before Sandusky) and AS (After Sandusky).

Not much good can come as a result of the crimes, but I hope we all look at ourselves honestly and admit that we simply don't know how we would have acted and reacted. That could move us closer to forgiveness and to finding answers that would help all of us avoid a repeat.

As Brooks concludes: "How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive? ... It’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature."

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