The Milgram Experiment

Okay – it’s been a weird couple of weeks, I think we can all agree. Current events have proven that there’s clearly some inconsistencies in peoples’ perceptions of propriety and good behavior. I get it. We’re all from different backgrounds, and we all react to things differently. That’s cool. In the interests of averting any further drama, though, I think it’s best that I state publicly my position on these issues, just so everybody knows where I’m coming from if we run into these problems in the future:

1) If I ever catch any of you raping a child, I’m going to first physically stop you, then ensure that the child is okay, and then call the police. In that order.

2) Having alerted the authorities, I will keep a close eye on you until you’ve been taken into custody, ensuring that you stay well away from children.

3) If, having alerted law enforcement, I don’t notice a prompt and sufficient response, I’ll re-alert law enforcement and remind them about the whole rape thing, potentially mixing it up by calling different jurisdictions or county/statewide organizations in hopes of circumventing any corruption.

4) I won’t quit harassing law enforcement until you’re in jail.

5) My reaction to your pedophilia will be in no way be affected by our friendship, your stature within the community, or your job prowess. I have a unilateral policy of police calling on child rapists.

6) I can’t guarantee it, but we probably won’t be friends anymore afterwards. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh. In my defense, you’ll probably be pretty angry at me for getting you thrown in jail.

I know it’s awkward to talk about these things, and in no way do I mean to suggest that any of you are child molesters – given the recent events at Penn State and the subsequent investigation, though, it seems like there’s a lot of disagreement on how best to respond to finding one of your friends and colleagues raping a child.

So I’m just letting all of you know that, should I catch you raping a child, that’s exactly what I’ll do. So don’t let me catch you raping any kids. In fact, maybe you should just not rape kids in general. That seems like the safest course of action.

I wrote a draft of this update about a week ago in a somewhat less stable emotional state, and ultimately decided it wasn’t quite ready to be posted – I don’t want to talk about what I wrote in too much detail, but the title was ‘Fuck You, Joe Paterno!’, so I think you can kind of get an idea of where I stand on the whole thing. I’ve calmed down a bit since then, but I more or less stand by my original sentiment – now I’d just broaden it to, ‘Fuck You, Penn State Administration!’

It’s really a waste of breath to say that Jerry Sandusky is a monster – sure, as some donors to his defense fund will point out, we haven’t heard his side of the story and he ought to have his day in court, but the discovery of a massive coverup resulting in the firing of the University president and an enormously popular and successful football coach isn’t doing a lot to make him look innocent. All I’m saying is, if Dick Cheney wants to fly one last American citizen to a CIA black site and waterboard him, just for the hell of it, I think we as a nation would be willing to look the other way just this once if he chose Jerry Sandusky.

But Jerry Sandusky was a sick and ultimately pretty damn evil guy. What gets me is that the people around him who covered for his actions – who for nine years after either personally witnessing or hearing from a trusted source that Sandusky was raping kids in the locker rooms did nothing and allowed him to keep running a charitable organization for children – are not, I would assume, evil people.

They were a bunch of upstanding, hardworking, normal Americans who found out that one of their colleagues was a child molester and simply reported the information to their immediate superiors and then apparently did their best to forget that they’d ever heard of it. Nine years between McQueary witnessing the rape in the locker room and Sandusky’s arrest – that’s an awful long time for nobody around the water cooler to cock his head and say:

Hey, whatever happened to that whole ‘We saw Jerry raping a kid’ thing? I mean, he’s still free, and he’s still running that charity for little kids, and Mike definitely saw him raping a little kid, so… I mean, do you think we should do, like, a followup?

Something that a lot of Paterno’s supporters have brought up is that neither he nor anybody else at Penn State was legally required to report the alleged abuses beyond notifying their immediate superiors, which all of them did. I can’t possibly convey how balls-out retarded the Pennsylvania child abuse reporting statutes are any better than this line from The Intelligencer:

“McQueary didn't have to report what he saw since the child didn't report the abuse to him in his capacity as a graduate assistant for the university.”

I’d make a joke, but then I’d be making a joke about how terrible legislation and a corrupt state university created arguably the perfect environment in which to do irreparable harm to children.

Of course, why does anybody need a set of laws governing whether they should or shouldn’t report child abuse? How could McQueary, Paterno, et al. sleep at night for nine years after having done the bare minimum to report Sandusky’s actions and seeing him go unpunished?

I don’t think that there was anybody at the top forcing the staff to keep their mouths shut. I think those people felt compelled to stay quiet in defense of the program’s legacy as well as Sandusky’s and Paterno’s, and that poorly written legislation requiring them merely pass their knowledge on to superiors was what it took for them to rationalize their inaction. Given the student body’s deplorable response to Paterno’s ouster, I get the idea the climate at Penn State wasn’t one that would encourage a whistleblower threatening to topple the program.

The best answer I can come up with for how good men could stand idly by and let a staggering amount of evil happen right under their noses comes from The Milgram Experiment.

At Yale in 1961, psychology professor Stanley Milgram set out to test his theory that good people can be relatively easily coerced into doing awful things. He set up an experiment in which test subjects were encouraged to press a button which, they were led to believe, administered increasingly painful electric shocks to a test subject in an adjoining room. As the shocks got more powerful and the person in the other room began to pound on the wall in faux-pain, many of the subjects expressed doubt about what they were doing, but at the test administrator’s insistence roughly 65% of test subjects continued to deliver what they thought were 450 volt shocks, even though many of them were visibly uncomfortable about doing it.

Ultimately, Milgram wrote:

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Truman Capps isn't ending on a joke.