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The Penn State Scandal: The Failing of an Institution and Our Culture of Outrage

Nov 22, 2011 by

The Penn State Scandal: The Failing of an Institution and Our Culture of Outrage

The Jerry Sandusky-Penn State child molestation case is the biggest sports-related story to cross into the American mainstream since the OJ murder trial. Like the OJ case, it has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy: the American icon fallen from grace, our perception of our heroes shaken to its core, a deep and fundamental betrayal of public trust, and even more sickeningly, public belief. The days of Penn State as a premier academic and athletic institution are likely over, and that seems unfathomable. But as monolithic as the school is, it is a human institution created and staffed by human beings. That it should also have human flaws and shortcomings should not be a surprise. It is a profound disappointment, but it is not a surprise. Which is why I’m so dismayed by the ever-growing, media-populated lynch mob that has surrounded the story with pitchforks and torches.

Our society enjoys being outraged. 21st century American culture has embraced the concept of schadenfreude to a frightening extent; we don’t necessarily want to win, but we do want our opponents to lose. We live to pile it on. If someone is down, all the better. (There’s also an envious side to schadenfreude that I see prevalent in my generation. Ex.: Let’s say there’s a wealthy man living in a big house on the hill. Every day, he rolls through the poorer side of town in his gleaming Mercedes-Benz.  Instead of saying, “I want that. If I work hard, I can get it,” our culture all too often says, “Fuck that guy. Who does he think he is?”) It’s an unhealthy attitude, but Americans love to strut about on a moral high ground. (See: Clinton-Lewinsky.) In the wake of scandal, it’ a veritable race to see who can summon the most indignation and outrage.

I thought of all this as I observed the media’s and the public’s reaction to the ever-growing Penn State scandal. Pundits tripped over themselves in a rush to be outraged over the abuse case and subsequent institutional cover-up. Mike Golic of ESPN’s Mike & Mike in The Morning visibly trembled with rage when asked what his reaction was to the case, saying that he couldn’t even say on the air what he would do to the alleged perpetrator of the crimes. I was almost as disturbed by this reaction to the case as I was to the case itself. There have only been allegations, and the case hasn’t been heard in a court of law. Do I think Sandusky did it? He’s as guilty as OJ. But here is a member of the media implying that he wishes to kill Sandusky, facts unseen. How is that okay?

I understand that what (allegedly) happened at Penn State is a terrible thing, the cover-up of the acts even worse. But why the rush to discredit the school? Why the rush to rub salt in the wound, to condemn, to scale Mount Pious and out-moral high horse other media members? It drives me insane that every media pundit has to have a “take” on the case, as if there is another stance to have. It’s like when activists say they’re “anti-abortion.” Absolutely NO ONE, even the most fervent pro-lifer, is pro-abortion. To say you’re anti-abortion is to willfully ignore what the argument is actually about. The same is going on here. To say you’re outraged by the Penn State scandal is to say nothing at all, because what else would you feel?

\What allegedly happened at Penn State is a travesty and a crime, but it has happened before and it will happen again. The kind of blind, group-think public pummeling of Penn State that has gone on can’t undo it. It’s a blessing that the crimes were stopped when they did, that they were not unable to continue. But that is lost in members of the media throwing their hands to the heavens and demanding to know how this could be allowed to happen. But how it happens is disgustingly easy. Human institutions like Penn State also have human failings. But we believe that institutions shouldn’t have failings, that they should somehow be on a higher plane. But anything created by man can be undone by man. To be angry about that is to be angry at the sky for being so blue. All of the outrage and moral preening in the world won’t change our flaws. Expending anger about the failures of man is just the easiest way to deal with not knowing how to solve them.

1 Comment

  1. Ari

    I’ve been waiting patiently for you to write about this scandal. And while I’m not totally surprised, I am a bit saddened by your cynicism. Of course the initial reaction is going to be outrage. How else can anyone react to a crime like this in any way but a visceral one? I do agree that much of the media response seems to be one-upping each other about how angry they are, but what is the alternative? To shrug their shoulders, say “shit happens,” then move on?

    I spent last weekend up to my eyeballs in comment wars on Facebook about the scandal, particularly in response to Charles P. Pierce’s piece “The Brutal Truth About Penn State.” Much of the reaction was similar to yours, that the piece was yet another self-serving writer trying to say, “if you think you’re mad, read this!” Pierce’s inflammatory language and shaky organization probably didn’t help his cause, but this quote in particular is an interesting (compliment? contradiction? not sure yet) to your point: “It is not a failure of our institutions so much as it is a window into what they have become — soulless, profit-driven monsters, Darwinian predators with precious little humanity left in them.”

    Yes, institutions are created by humans and thus have human flaws. But the sheer number of people involved in an institution, you would think, acts as a system of checks and balances to weed out the ugliness of humanity. Or, like in this case (and in the real world, let’s face it), the number of people in institutions just gives bad seeds bigger walls to hide behind.

    I’m starting to lose track of what I’m responding to, so I’ll just say this: Part of the reason why people react so vehemently to this is not just because this man was allowed to continue committing crimes the most helpless of people, but because it reveals flaws in our own humanity. The outrage is necessary, I think, to hopefully inspire people to consider their own institutions and moral shortcomings.

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