“First comes the atrocity, then came the vanity.”
This week, I’m writing a meditation on David Brooks’s “Let’s All Feel Superior,” a 2011 NYTimes column about the vanity of commentators following the news of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The vanity Brooks describes is a sort of indignation and outcry in which people make assumptions of how they would have intervened or done a lot better if they were involved in the situation. With regards to Sandusky, many commentators put themselves in head coach Joe Paterno’s shoes, and have a general attitude that “they would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.”
But most people don’t intervene, especially during the worst mankind has seen. The Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are two examples noted by Brooks. The lack of intervention in the face of atrocity may happen for a variety of reasons. When horror happens, many suffer from the normalcy bias, in which when people find themselves in a horrifyingly unsettling situation, “they shut down and pretend everything is normal.” People also suffer from motivated blindness, a subconscious effort for people to not see things in their best interest to see. For example, machines tracked the eye movements of people shown pictures of sexual imagery, and subjects who were more uncomfortable with sex skipped over looking at uncomfortable sexual imagery.
Brooks even cites one psychological study at Penn State itself about people’s tendency to not intervene when they consciously know something is offensive. A 1999 study asked students whether they would say something if someone else made sexist comments around them. Half of the participants said they would, but when the researchers arranged for someone to say a sexist comment in their presence, only 16% of people said something. In psychology, this is the bystander effect, and is amplified if more and more people are around. In the most egregious and well-known case of the bystander effect, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens, New York, with 38 witnesses watching who did nothing.
What lies behind this, however, is self-deception. “We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do,” a universal blind spot in the human condition.
Moral systems are built to acknowledge this lapse in hypocrisy. Christianity, for example, believes that each person is a sinner, and that none are righteous. “Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside.” These moral systems, from religions to philosophies, “gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it.”
Now, however, Brooks argues that our society today has changed drastically from the days of the Puritans. “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.” In the case of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, the culture of college football was often that target. People often look for change, whether in law or in culture, to prevent anything as atrocious from happening again, yet history often repeats itself over and over. Commentators constantly cast blame on everyone involved in the Jerry Sandusky scandal “from the island of their own innocence.”
“Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’”
At the very end of the article, Brooks redirects the question inwards to “how can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?” I’m relatively certain that a few years from today, we may look back at atrocities happening in Yemen or in Myanmar today and ask “how did we let this happen?” We asked the question after many scandals in our own country, especially with regards to the events that led up to the Great Recession. However, we have trouble asking it an always do, because “the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”
Scrolling through the comments, the majority were of scathing nature towards Brooks for what was perceived as excusing coaches like Paterno or Mike McQueary, who could have stopped sexual assaults with a single 911 call. These very comments and mindset prove Brooks’s point. We love to be on a moral high horse because it soothes our vanity and distracts us from our own moral and ethical failings in our own lives.
I rarely agree with David Brooks and his politics, but in this case, I do. He may be wrong and I may be very wrong about the human condition, but look no further than a column published the same day by Joe Nocera, titled “Penn State’s Long Road Back.” Nocera details five steps Penn State had to take to reckon with their moral road back, and ends the article saying “the path to restoring [Penn State’s] values is clear. The question is whether Penn State has the moral spine to choose it.”
Similarly, Nocera was condemned in the comments section of this article for sitting on his moral high ground and vanity. Even if Nocera were right and his ideas were the best course of actions, the holier-than-thou superiority complex exhibited in the piece is condescending to a fault. In an ideal world, we can condemn and do our best to act on the atrocity without the vanity.
Personally, I have taken a huge step back from the villifying high horse I used to be on. I have learned that the human condition means everyone is capable of anything, no matter how good or how bad. I choose, in my articles, to build people up instead of condemning them for their mistakes. Frankly, a large part of this is because I can see myself being in the same situation as people I used to condemn for inaction or poor decision making. I am not in their arena. None of us are, and in the meantime, just reserving our condemnation and judgment is imperative.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on November 5, 2018.