On the Penn State Penalties

I am not going to attempt my usual joke-a-thon to make the news go down easier. Too much pain in Colorado.

But I did want to share a little hope in the penalties levied on Penn State today.

Maybe you guys can help me out with this: I cannot think of a time when an entire culture was held to account for the horrific cruelties it let happen.

Our tendency is to blame a few bad apples, as they say. Punish some individuals and close the case.

It’s easier! I don’t mean that cynically: no one wants to believe that he or she has taken part in a culture that encourages violence–especially sexual violence, especially towards children. It’s easier to blame some indviduals (like Lynndie England) than to hold entire institutions responsible (like the Catholic Church or the Army. Or the Navy).

And really, who’s responsible for our culture’s systematic objectification of women and children? What prosecutable number of people?

We cannot comprehend the scope of the problem, or of our part in it. The widespread effects of the little words we say to our sons and daughters, or that TV show we let them watch, or this outfit we buy for them. The ways that we reinforce gender and sexuality norms without even thinking about it (which is why they’re norms, and why norms are so powerful).

Or the ways we maintain a society with such deep economic inequality that we dismiss as a failure of (millions of) individuals to commit adequately to success.

So that someone like Sandusky can prey on children without stable families or homes. So that he can feel like he’s helping these children, and that they are really in love with him, and that their love is nobler because it must be secret. Making him believe so deeply in his own innocence. Pedophiles maintain their innocence to the end.

So we whittle the social crimes down to a single failed grad student. Or a single misguided soldier. Or, you know, a single rotten football coach.

The NCAA took its responsibility seriously and sanctioned the entire Penn State community for what it allowed to happen in its football program.Wonderful!

But this is perhaps an overly rare case when it’s possible to hold a whole culture to account for its crimes. Penn State and its football program is a tidily-contained community for whom economic and status-based punishments are likely to work.

We cannot find an analogy in, say, the nationwide media apparatus that constantly and subtly reinforces women’s (and girls’) status as sexual objects.

We cannot even make a case for adequate, reasonable, compromised gun control. The kinds of regulations that may have drastically reduced the number of victims in Aurora Thursday night while still allowing gun people to do that recreational or self-defense stuff they care about so much.

(And while we’re on the topic, here are some graphs illustrating the FACT that even minimal gun control laws lead to fewer gun-related deaths.)

So I’m heartened that, for once in my (albeit limited) memory, an entire culture is punished for the unthinkable acts it allowed to happen.

But I’m reminded how impossible that is in most cases.

And meanwhile, the people responsible for educating our children in the complex relationship between cultural norms and individual behavior are deprived of the chance to do their crucial work.

Where’s the MOOC that helps students genuinely comprehend the widespread social and cultural causes of our country’s rampant violence?

Without widespread public support of higher education, especially in the humanities, everyone will go on thinking that a single crazy person is responsible for death at the movie theater. Or a single psychopathic soldier is responsible for criminal torture of POWs. Or one rotten football coach is responsible for decades of raping children.

But we have Penn State to show us that it’s not just one rotten coach. It’s an entire culture whose sights have fixed so completely on money and status that dozens of children’s lives are invisible to it.

But it’s not just Penn State’s culture. It’s ours.

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