Inner Witlessness

David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys.  So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.

I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.

People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing.  Quoth Brooks:

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.

So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape.  That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] 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?”

First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review.  For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions.  Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies.  It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response.  Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.

Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys.  Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist.  Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond.  If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.

Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.

5 thoughts on “Inner Witlessness”

  1. My "shorter" take on Brooks' column was, "First they came for the communists, but who are you to judge?"

  2. Good one Aaron. 

    To iron man ever-so-slightly, there is something to the idea that we shouldn't over congratulate ourselves for our outrage.  One reason is that it's clear that there's some massive lying going on.  Some people who were in positions of responsibility may have been the victims of that.  But this is a factual question; a prudent person in other words would not be so quick to judge.  Not, mind you, because of our fallen nature or whatever the hell the crack told Brooks to write.  Another reason not to be so quick to judge is that people sometimes lie about matters like this for some kind of gain.  We might not know about lots of other things going on here, so we shouldn't be quick to judge.  Dude might be innocent in some way.  Again, a factual question. 

    However, given the truth of claim A–say literally there was a dude with a 10 year old as described–the answer to the question ought to be very very easy.  In fact, the sheer ease of that answer ought to be the question here.

    More importantly, perhaps, the old-timey morality Brooks has made up here seems kind of, er, made up–er, Salem witch trials anyone?  When I look back to that simpler time, I don't see a bunch of people being understanding to people's mistakes; I see them shouting for more fire.

  3. @Aaron: LMAO
    I think that's fair, John.  My feeling is that few, if any, of the people outraged by this incident are being self-congratulatory about it.  It's so thoroughly shocking that if someone had told you this story, you'd never believe it was true.  My main qualm with Brooks is that he assumes that this outrage is ipso fatso self-congratulatory, which, in light of the facts of this case, is a risible position.

    Agreed on his odd conception of the history of ethics, and while I think there is something to be said about the apparent tendency of human beings to search for so-called "governance theories of morality," I think Brooks has either misidentified the cause of that tendency, or maybe even just supplied a cause of his own making.  The sheer amount of bare, unfounded assertions in this column is alarming even by low standards I have set for a David Brooks column.

  4. I actually have a different theory; people want to believe the best of their friends. Would you want to believe that you're friend was raping 10 yr olds? No. They didn't want to believe it because it seemed so radically out of character for Jerry Sandunsky.
    It wasn't that people knew and didn't do anything, it was that they knew he could never do anything like that, so there must be some other explanation.

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