Thursday, November 10, 2011

We Are...Pointing Fingers

I still need to blog about DevLearn 2011, and I will, but an adorable little stomach virus is ravaging my household...and a reprehensible set of circumstances is ravaging my graduate school alma mater, Penn State University.

Bad people make decisions that hurt other people intentionally. Good people make decisions that hurt other people unintentionally.

Jerry Sandusky is a pedophile that molested boys that were already victims, abused his position of authority, and created an environment that allowed him to continue that pattern for years. He's clearly a bad guy.

Joe Paterno is a football coach to whom a really disturbing incident was reported, who in turn reported that incident, which resulted in inaction and subsequent offenses. He could have done more. But I'm not convinced that makes him a bad guy.

I've made decisions in my life that have hurt people unintentionally. I've always tried to do the best, be the best, with the information I have. Sometimes the information I have is incomplete, or flat out wrong...that has led me to make, in retrospect, some really bad choices. Some of those choices hurt people. I live with that every day.

When I was young, I knew something was wrong with my great-grandfather. If you would have asked me, I wouldn't have been able to name it. I just knew I was uncomfortable being around him and I never let myself be alone with him. I wouldn't sit on his lap; I wouldn't let him kiss me. I just knew something was wrong.

Then one day, the stories started to emerge about what my great-grandfather had been doing. In the end, I was the only one of the great-grandchildren who had escaped unscathed. When my parents and the other adults in my life started asking questions, I admitted that I knew something was wrong. Then the inevitable questions: "why didn't you say something? Why didn't you do something? If you would have said something, other peoples' pain could have been prevented." I know all of this is true. At the time, I didn't have the words to explain my feelings, I didn't have evidence to point to. I didn't want to cause a big drama focused on the patriarch of my family. And it WAS a big drama...many family members shunned him, one called the police, but many defended him...he was just a lonely old man, after all. A lonely old child molester, in fact.

Since then, I've had situations arise where I have stepped up. A friend in junior high who sent me a suicide note, which I turned in to my guidance counselors...another friend in high school who I reported to child protective services after I had to help her bandage the weeping open sores across her back from where her father had whipped her...when I became a teacher, a student in my class who showed up with one bruise one too many. Each of these incidences resulted in some tremendous backlash--I lost friendships, I was accused of lying, I took the heat for bad situations that people desperately wanted to ignore and deny. I like to think that I made the right decisions anyway.

There have been other situations in my life where I suspected something was wrong, but I didn't step up to stop it. I would tell myself its not my business; I'd think about the impact or fallout on me, or what it would say about me if my assumptions were wrong. I like to think of myself as a trusting person who sees the good in people, someone who is forgiving and gives second chances. It wasn't that I didn't want to make things right, it was just really unclear what the cost-benefit of shining the light on a situation would be. What if I was wrong? Would more people be hurt by my speaking out? What would the exposure mean to everyone involved? What if speaking my truth actually caused more harm than good? At some point you have to make a decision on what you believe, who you trust, and then prepare to live with the consequences of being wrong.

Joe Paterno will live with his decisions. It is so easy to Monday morning quarterback, to say what he should have done. There must have been a million thoughts that passed through his mind: are these accusations possible? If they are, who is responsible for addressing them? If they aren't, what are the repercussions of making false accusations? Who do I believe? Who do I trust? What do I do when I answer those questions for myself?

Maybe we don't recognize the monsters among us. Maybe we try too hard to see the good and ignore the bad. Maybe its just too hard to think "he's a pedophile." Maybe our inherent trust sometimes backfires spectacularly and then we're left to reflect on what we could have done differently to prevent the devastation.

Maybe we should cut the good guys a break for doing the best they can with the tools they have available, even when their best is an epic failure.

There is a difference between the man who chooses to betray trust intentionally, repeatedly, and only thinking of himself, and the people around him who, often unintentionally or with best intentions, allow that betrayal and abuse to continue. All have fault. All have responsibility. All have to live with the consequences of their actions, or inaction. But there are levels of responsibility, and there are intentions that drive decisions, that differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. Good guys screw up trying to do what they think is right. Bad guys don't care what is right.

The good news is there are a lot more good guys than bad guys. Let's try to keep that in mind.

**Additional thought (after original publication of this post): what Buzz said.


  1. This is about accountability, not good or bad. It happened on his watch. He should have manned up and owned it. He received all the accouterments of his own kingdom. This isn't an execution, he's just out a kingdom. The price is high at the top.

  2. Didn't say he shouldn't take accountability or responsibility, not saying that he shouldn't have a price to pay. But the focus on Joe Paterno is shifting the responsibility off the man who actually raped and molested those boys. I don't see a lot of focus on holding Jerry Sandusky accountable.

  3. *self righteous commenter alert*

  4. Anonymous commenters are always self righteous, aren't they? Of course, I let them post because it's interesting what people are willing to say but not stand behind...