Thursday, November 10, 2011

'Nobody Should Have All That Power': Musings on the Tragedy at Penn State

I have been listing to the Dan Patrick Show on the local Fox Sports Radio Network for most of the afternoon (10 November 2011). As you can imagine virtually all of the talk, all of the interviewees Patrick has spoken to, all of those calling in to Patrick's show, and Patrick's commentary today has focused on the child abuse scandal that is sweeping across the Pennsylvania State University campus and State College, Pennsylvania, and the subsequent firing of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier as a result of the scandal.

Virtually every interviewer Patrick has spoken to and virtually every caller to Patrick's show today has rightly condemned Jerry Sandusky, the assistant Penn State football coach who allegedly sexually abused young children for years while he was a coach at Penn State and while he ran a charity for young children. Virtually every caller and interviewee believes Paterno and Penn State's president, Graham Spainier, should have been, as they were, fired. And virtually every caller and interviewee believes that Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who allegedly saw Sandusky in a shower with a young boy and who later told Paterno what he saw, should have intervened in what was happening in Penn State's locker room or should have called the police immediately.

What Patrick, Patrick's commentators, and Patrick's commentators, aren't talking about, however, is the elephant in the room, about how power plays itself out in interactions where one person in the interaction has more power than the other, as in the relationship between McQueary and Sandusky. Patrick, his commentators, and his callers need, in my opinion, to take this difference in power and the authority that emanates from this unequal distribution of power, into consideration here because, again in my estimation, it matters. Imbalances of power and authority impact relationships of unequal power and this imbalance of power and authority almost always impacts how others respond to and react to claims in which a person of lesser power makes a charge against a person of greater power particularly when that person is a sports legend on a college campus, a captain of industry, a political figure, or a celebrity. If you need an example note how Michael Jackson's worshipers, worshipers who clearly whitewash and glorify the gloved one, reacted to the conviction of Conrad Murray recently outside a Los Angeles court recently.

One thing that really galls me about Patrick's callers and commentators (and those on other Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio shows) is their holier than thou reaction to the horrible events that happened at Penn State. These folks go on and on about what the grad assistant should have done and about what they would have done in that situation. They fail to recognise or even realise, however, that it is relatively easy for someone to say what they would do in a difficult situation than it is to actually do something in a situation where there are, in particular, great power and authority imbalances, in situations where ones career is at stake (how many whistle blowers are there?), or in situations where one's life is at stake.

And I should know. When I lived in Moscow, Russia, I saw the militia hassle two young men for, what seemed to me, no good or even any real reason. What did I do? Nothing. I was too scared to do anything. Moreover, I know something about academic studies of what happens in situations of power imbalance and situations where an authority figure tells you what to do. The reality of situations where there is a power and authority difference, is that most people do what they are told to do by authority figures even if it means torturing or potentially killing someone. As Stanley Milgram showed years and years ago and as all those Germans who claimed to have been following orders from authorities to kill Jews and others before and during World War II show, is that most people, when told to do something by authority figures, simply follow the orders of their leaders even if, as I mentioned, it might result in death. They, in other words, do nothing to stop the abuse inherent in torturing someone. So for me, in the end, talk is cheap but real action against illegal and inhumane actions isn't. Unfortunately, far too few of us humans do much about either when we actually face them. Remember the Armenians? Remember the Holocaust? Remember Kitty Genovise? Remember Cambodia? Remember Rwanda? Remember Bosnia?

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