First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.This seems to me self-evident, but many of these commentators can't wrest themselves from their knowledgable future perspective to see their vanity for what it is. They see, but they don't see. They are incapable of putting themselves in someone else's shoes.
Our culture has become coarse and nothing about the depravity of men is now hidden from us.We now know what people are capable of and we are accustomed to having it paraded before us in all its squalor on a daily basis. But we're talking about a man here who is of another generation. Paterno is 84 years old. He's not only old, he's old school. When someone tells him they witnessed something going on "of a sexual nature," the rest of us have a pretty vivid image of what that might be since we have seen it dramatized for us over and over and over again.
But people of Paterno's generation have not. He probably goes home and watches "Gunsmoke" reruns, not "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." That's what I do.
I'm loathe to quote "studies" on anything, and so it makes me feel better about the studies that Brooks quotes that it is he who is quoting them. But the next time you hear someone tell you all the heroics he would have performed had he been in Paterno's shoes, remind them of the "Bystander Effect":
Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.I have had my differences with Brooks, but the piece is really good. Read the rest here.
In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”
So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect.