Thursday, November 17, 2011

Good men doing nothing


At least one representative of the MSM hasn’t missed the point of the Penn State scandal. I’m relieved to read David Brooks’ op-ed piece in the November 14 New York Times, “Let’s All Feel Superior”, which skips the easy path of comparison with the Catholic Church’s sex scandals to look at other phenomena:

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.

Brooks gets it. What’s more, he gets it in a column published in a journal that for some reason is still taken seriously by the chattering classes. It’s not about corrupt power structures or old-boy networks or celibacy (or the lack thereof); these diagnoses were ever supplied by political concerns rather than any human insight.

It’s about fear. More specifically, about the very common human problem of moral cowardice.


When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

There are several variations of this poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller; however, they all express the personal responsibility Niemöller felt for not having resisted the Nazi powers. “We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. … And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done.”

As both Brooks and The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named have reminded us, several scientific experiments have demonstrated our capacity — nay, willingness! — to ignore the atrocity next door, the viciousness we pass on the street, the evil that men do in front of our very eyes:

In research done at Penn State [Here’s your irony supplement for the day] 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.
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. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.

In a couple of different posts, I’ve spoken of the hypocrisy of David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP. Clohessy had known for years about allegations against his brother, Rev. Kevin Clohessy of the Diocese of Jefferson, Mo., yet never said anything until an alleged victim publicly accused the priest in 2002. Despite his own personal failure, Clohessy is the first to condemn non-reporting, often with overblown rhetoric and irresponsible claims of collusion bordering on conspiracy-theorist fantasies.

But the reason I bring up Clohessy’s hypocrisy is not to condemn it but because it illustrates the power of relationships to stifle our consciences. We condone, or at least tolerate, in loved ones behaviors for which we would damn a stranger or an enemy. I don’t know that, had I ever been put in Clohessy’s situation, I could have done what he failed to do; so while I despise his self-righteous anti-clericalism, I can’t blame him for not dropping a dime on his own kin.

There are other reasons for failure to step up and do the right thing. Many arguments for the legality of actions such as abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and fetal stem-cell research ground themselves in compassion for victims of human evil or physical disease. Instead of holding the line against intrinsic evil, we give in because we don’t want to be thought of as heartless bastards incapable of sympathy for the unfortunates.

To Edmund Burke is apocryphally attributed the statement, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In debunking the attribution, Martin Porter writes, “The pseudo-quote is … without authenticity or meaning, and is just another of those political slogans which are used not as an assistance to, but as a substitute for real thought. It is not a deep truth, although it is constantly treated as one.”

This way Porter unintentionally illustrates the chief danger of maxims: When they become truisms, we forget they really are true. So much have both the Church and Penn State scandals demonstrated. Moral cowardice is the failure of good men to oppose evil. Protection of children is simply the most basic exercise of this personal, individual responsibility; if we can’t do even this much, then we as a society don’t deserve to survive:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me’” (Mt 25:41-45).