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Sunday
Jul152012

The Mystery of Moral Blindness

There are two quotes from the Penn State scandal that I can’t get out of my mind. This:

In a confidential note, [former senior vice president for finance and business Gary C.] Schultz wrote, “Behavior—at best inappropriate @ worst sexual improprieties.” He also noted, “Is this the opening of Pandora’s box?” and “Other children?”

And:

“This approach [of failing to alert authorities] is acceptable to me,”  [Penn State President] Spanier wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Schultz and [Athletic Director] Curley. “The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it.”But that can be assessed down the road,” he continued. “The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.”

Is there some possible context that could put these words in a different light? Because these are the thoughts of moral monsters. Pandora’s box contained all the world’s evils and calamities. Who could see a group of molested children that way? Yes, I know it’s a stock phrase. But it’s actually quite apt–if you believe that the university’s reputation is the only thing that matters, then a group of suddenly-revealed underage rape victims is indeed a pestilence loosed upon the land.

Spanier’s email is even worse. The “only downside” is becoming vulnerable for not reporting it. The only downside? Not the downside of letting a child predator loose to rape again? Again, this sentence is coherent only when spoken by a person who has lost all humanity–the only downside for us. 

It’s abundantly clear that people who have been educated and acculturated in all of society’s norms of moral behavior will nonetheless commit indefensible acts if placed in particular environments. So people who hawk cancer-causing cigarettes or environmental pollutants sleep soundly at night. War does this, and politics does this too. Death, power, money, sex–organizations built around these powerful forces can drain the humanity of the people within them.

But I’ve always assumed that public universities were in a different category. At their worst: aloof, pedantic, elitist in the wrong way. But not this. I am struggling to understand what went so wrong, and I hope that Schultz, Spanier, and others try, as at least a small part of their penance, to explain.  How could they look at those children and be so blind?

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