HEROES DON’T GROW ON TREES
In so many ways, it has been a blessing to have a wife and two daughters. But in one respect, it has been a curse. By getting close to those ladies, and learning all about the ladies who are close to them, I’ve heard stories I would never have heard from men. These stories involve abuse – sexual abuse, infidelities, violence, you name it. But what’s really creepy about the stories aren’t the abusive behavior. It’s the way good people – hell, “model” people – tend to look the other way in the face of abuse. Call it human nature at its worst.
Take the greatest example of “abuse” – the Holocaust. We all have a choice as to what aspect of that event is most disturbing. Is it the existence of a small group of madmen who were hell bent on genocide? Or is it the fact that once these madmen came to power in one of the great countries of the world and revealed their dark sides, the citizenry (with few exceptions) stepped back and let the insanity reign. That’s another way of saying that the Holocaust presents to us both Hitler and Heidegger. One will go down in history as one of our most infamous mass murderers and the other as one of our greatest philosophers. Both were Nazis, but Hitler led the Party and Heidegger merely joined up. And why not? He may have disagreed with some of Hitler’s beliefs, yet it surely seemed like a good, safe career move for Heidegger to align himself with the Party in power.
The sad truth is that for every Hitler – for every perpetrator of abuse – there are legions of Heideggers who learn of the abuse but haven’t the guts or the inclination to confront it. And because there are far more enablers than there are heroes who are willing to stick their necks out, we depend upon the victims of the abuse to put a stop to it. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. Victims of abuse may report the event to the police, and yet the police may be powerless to act without additional evidence. And they may also notify the abusers’ family, friends and co-workers about what happened. But when they do so, the reaction is pretty much predictable. We as a species, despite being “made in the image of God,” tend to take care of our own. When we hear that our fuehrer, our family members, our friends, our priests, or our football coaches are involved in truly abusive behavior … we generally shrug off the information we don’t like, and get back to our own business.
With that as an introduction, you can imagine how I have been reacting to the scandal that has been rocking Central Pennsylvania this past week. A graduate assistant who works for the Penn State football team witnessed an ex-football coach having anal sex with a ten year old boy. He reported the incident to his superior (football legend, Joe Paterno), who reported it to his superior … and to make a long story short, nobody reported the incident to the police. As a result, the number of victims merely grew over time. Now that these events have come to light, the public (outside of the hamlet of State College Pennsylvania) have had pretty much the same response. They are shocked, SHOCKED, that the leaders of the Penn State football team would have failed to report such depraved and criminal conduct. Everywhere from Portland to Peoria to Phoenix, we’re hearing the same comments: “If I were that graduate assistant, I would have stopped that rape right then and there. And if I were Joe Paterno, I would have told the police right away. I don’t care how close I was to that rapist – I would have reported it.”
Sure you would, hero. Sure you would.
Allegations of abuse, however credible, rarely come with what most of us call “proof.” You’ve got the victim’s word against that of the perpetrator. And who has the burden of persuasion? You’ve guessed it – the victim. Also, the victim soon learns that it doesn’t pay to make a big stink. Anita Hill made a big stink about Clarence Thomas, and she was portrayed by the conservatives as some sort of lying witch. Now, we are seeing the same dynamic played out in the case of Herman Cain. When a lady named Sharon Bialek became known as the fourth woman who was claiming to be sexually harassed by Herman Cain, Rush Limbaugh spewed the following venom over the airwaves: “her name is Buy-A-Lick, as in [slurp, slurp] Buy-A-Lick.” You know and I know that Rush Limbaugh hasn’t a clue whether Sharon Bialek was telling 100% of the truth, 50% of the truth or no truth at all. But because she had the temerity to attack a conservative Republican who Limbaugh likes, that, apparently, was enough to give him the right to portray her as a whore. And he is completely getting away with those comments.
What Limbaugh is doing, sadly enough, is done every day in far more mundane situations. As soon as a victim speaks out, she or he is fair game for scrutiny. Is s/he trustworthy? Above reproach? Unless you’re a paragon of virtue, you better just take your medicine and shut up. Because if you’ve got a whistle to blow, the friends and family of the man you’re accusing are going to be digging for all the dirt they can find – and I mean dirt on you, not your abuser. Is there any wonder why it is so difficult for the ordinary victim of abuse in a non-celebrity context to get up the courage to speak out? What’s in it for them? And unless they have some sort of documentary proof of hard-core criminal conduct, what can they hope to gain from telling their story?
I have seen this scenario play out too many times before. The one and only time I’ve seen the abuser get in real trouble is when the idiot (a) messed with kids and (b) kept photographs. Neither is advisable. Better to just abuse adult women, and not to leave too much of a mark. Do that, and you can be sure that not only will your homies have your back, but the authorities won’t even give a second thought to the accusations.
In a sense, Joe Paterno is a victim here, strange as that sounds. This is a man whose trusted assistant reported witnessing a child get raped, and all Paterno did is notify his boss (the athletic director) about the event, and wash his own hands of the situation. Is that heroic conduct? Of course not. But nor is it any worse than what I would generally expect from my fellow man. Paterno heard an unpleasant allegation against someone with whom he had closely worked for decades, and he heard it from a young man who had no evidence other than his own uncorroborated testimony. In such situations, what percentage of people would do the bare minimum? 50? 75? 90%? I don’t know what the number is, but I’m sure it’s a big one.
Believe me, I have no personal sympathy for Joe Paterno, even though he is losing his job and much of his reputation for his role in that incident. Consider that Paterno has spent the last several decades being treated essentially like a god – and not only in Central Pennsylvania but in the world of sports generally. His name has become synonymous with integrity, character, honor. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches. And not only has he been deified, but I can guarantee you that as long as he lives, he’ll be spending his time largely surrounded by people who will treat him as a truly great man.
Now we all know that Joe Paterno is not such a man. He’s not a hero at all. He’s a guy who, at a critical juncture in his life, put personal interests over stopping rape in his lists of priorities. But my assumption, given what I’ve seen and heard in this world, is that Paterno behaved just as most others would have behaved in the same situation. You’ve heard the term “age appropriate” used for kids who behave in normal ways for people their age? Well, Paterno behaved in a way that was “species appropriate.”
Limbaugh? I guess you can say that his “Buy-A-Lick” crap did cross the line into unusually aggressive blame-the-victim conduct. But then again, it was hardly shocking either. Abuse situations are much like football games. When an abuser comes out and makes an accusation, all interested parties choose what team they are on. And if the abuser is a prominent member of the community and the victim isn’t, good luck with that accusation, chump.
I’m not happy about all this. In fact, I think the epidemic of abusive conduct in our society is intolerable. But we have to go through the “acceptance” stage of the process before we can work on a solution. And that begins with each of us looking in the mirror and asking what kind of enabling conduct we have been willing to accept when it comes to abuse. Let’s not be quite so willing to accept it in the future, OK?