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Cultures of Silence: Why Penn State and other institutions don't bring wrong-doing to light - and how outsiders should react

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Joe Paterno (Photographer: Jimmy Emerson)

Joe Paterno (Photographer: Jimmy Emerson)

Penn State University sent shock waves through higher education athletics and beyond last month when it summarily fired its long-serving, vastly popular head football coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno reportedly was dismissed for – among other reasons – failing to go beyond the minimum in bringing to light the conduct of a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, who allegedly had sexually assaulted no fewer than eight children over a 15-year period, including at least one in the university’s football locker room. The trustees’ firing of Paterno reflected a judgment that a person of his stature had a moral obligation – if not a legal one – to take more forceful action in such a matter. Worse, in the eyes of some, Paterno had provided safe haven to a sexual predator on campus.

To many observers, the Penn State affair – and a similar case reported at Syracuse University three weeks later – simply confirmed that the sense of entitlement in the world of big-time sports is so great that insiders believe themselves and their associates to be above the law. But while entitlement may indeed be part of the picture, there is another explanation: Cultures evolve within insular groups that sometimes blind otherwise moral people to behavior which, in other contexts, they would never countenance.

 “Cultural norms have enormously strong impact on the way we behave, the range of our feeling about certain behaviors, and what and how much we disclose,” says Barry Farber, TC Professor of Psychology and Education. “It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to confront and challenge” unethical behavior that might be acceptable – or at least overlooked – inside the subgroup. At Penn State, Farber adds, “people didn’t want a culture that worked financially to be disturbed.”

Sometimes reporting outside the group is not just a matter of courage. Marla Brassard, Professor of Psychology and Education, notes that people can be confused or even swayed by emotions that may be rooted in cultural differences. As the student protests that followed Paterno’s dismissal clearly demonstrate, the threat of a black mark on the reputations of Paterno and the football team was perceived by many inside the Penn State community as a threat to students, alumni and fans who had built their social lives and, in some cases, much of their identity, around rooting for the Nittany Lions. Thus Brassard, who calls Paterno’s behavior and that of others at Penn State a case of “ethical and moral failure,” says it’s understandable that people witnessing or told of unethical or even illegal behavior by someone within their own subculture might want to protect the perpetrator and the institution by staying silent.

Worse, she says, they could misconstrue or misperceive what they saw – particularly when, the accusations do not square with their experience of figures such as Sandusky or the well-loved and much-admired Paterno. “I think when people are confronted with something that’s hard for them to process, they find it challenging to know the right thing to do,” Brassard says.

Many Catholics faced just such a quandary when contemplating accounts of priests and higher officials involved in the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Some Church high officials had reportedly known for decades about the widespread problem, but had refused to take action to root out and prevent it. Instead of protecting individual victims, they had chosen to protect both the priests, whose parishes and communities revered them and entrusted them with their children, and the broader institution of the Church itself. These officials may well have been swayed by the knowledge that accusations of child abuse can destroy careers and lives. It makes some psychological sense, then, Brassard says, that they – and even victims, their parents or others in the community -- would have doubted, minimized, or misperceived what they saw, experienced or were told, or failed to consciously process the event at all until much later, after others had had the courage to come forward.

L. Lee Knefelkamp, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College and an expert in intercultural ethics, draws a distinction between people within a subculture protecting their own members and the institution, as in the Penn State case, and the obligation of outsiders to call out unethical behavior taking place within a group. Knefelkamp agrees that tolerance of other cultures is critically important in today’s world, where many societies are increasingly multicultural, and there are constant clashes over values between different ethnic, religious, social and political groups.

But respect for other cultures can sometimes blind people to what others would call their ethical responsibility. For example, The New York Times recently reported that European Union officials blocked release of an EU-commissioned documentary showing how female rape victims in Afghanistan are often accused of adultery and jailed. To avoid further embarrassment for their families, many of these victims are forced to marry their attackers. While the EU leaders were motivated by concerns about diplomatic risks, they knew that those risks would stem from challenging a culturally accepted practice.

Protecting wrongdoers within one’s own organization is certainly unacceptable, Knefelkamp says, but remaining silent in the face of clear injustice taking place outside one’s culture constitutes a moral failure that is equally harmful. Within and across cultures and organizations, limits of ethical behavior have to be identified, “beyond which we will not condone behavior,” she says, while cultural tolerance “doesn’t mean that we abdicate our responsibility to make ethical judgments about what is right and wrong.” Regardless of where each of us might come out on Paterno’s behavior and subsequent firing, those acts aren’t “value neutral” for people from within or outside the culture of Penn State and big-time intercollegiate athletics, Knefelkamp says. Even though we have an obligation to try to understand them in cultural context, she avers, we must still ultimately pass judgment.

And while cultural norms for behaviors can vary, one set of behaviors – parental abuse and neglect – has remarkably similar effects on children in any culture, Brassard points out. She cites work by Ronald P. Rohner and Evelyn Rohner, psychologists and professors emeriti at the University of Connecticut, who have discovered that children, regardless of environment or culture, respond similarly to rejection or emotional abuse by their parents. The Rohners, in turn, cite studies by G. and A. Reichel-Dolmatoff of Colombian mestizo children in the South American village of Aritama, who are treated with “carelessness, ignorance, and at times, open hostility” by their mothers. These children share some psychological and emotional difficulties with children in Czechoslovakia, where the incidence of unwanted children and child abuse is high. In a study published in 1980, the Rohners write that the effects of parental rejection “work uniformly throughout our species, regardless of difference in race, nationality, time or other limiting conditions.” Their work suggests that there is a set of actions that constitute child abuse under any circumstances, and while those actions may be permitted in some places, they are in fact hurtful in every culture.

Knefelkamp says interculturalism – the unfettered exchange of cultural practices and beliefs – is often misunderstood as an imperative to simply learn about and be respectful of other cultures. What’s needed instead, she argues, is a broadly agreed upon set of ethics – a code of behavior which, while flexible enough to accommodate cultural differences, transcends culture and even local law and demands that we take a stand. If that objective sounds ambitious, it is – but it’s not without precedent. The Geneva Convention treaties, for example, established standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of victims and prisoners of war.

At Penn State, Paterno’s defenders speculate that he may, in fact, have followed up with university officials and may even have been told that the matter was being handled. If so, he was following a university policy consistent with Pennsylvania law. In both Pennsylvania and New York, college professionals – even those involved with youth programs -- are not currently mandated to report suspected child abuse to outside authorities. A bipartisan bill pending in the New York legislature would require college coaches, faculty and administrators to report sexual abuse on college campuses.

Institutional policies that require an employee only to report something to his or her superior do not adequately protect children, Brassard says. As responsibility for taking action is shared and the information is reported up the chain of command, those weighing the matter can lose sight of the seriousness and severity of the situation, increasing the likelihood of a decision to not report. Meanwhile, an employee who initially calls attention to suspected abuse becomes highly vulnerable to superiors who may be motivated to protect individuals or institutions at the expense of the abused. And even when those who suspect child abuse are legally mandated to report it directly to outside authorities, they can still find it daunting to do so. However, clear laws, mandated training in how to follow them, and an institutional environment that has no tolerance for abuse makes it much more likely that suspected abuse will be reported, Brassard says.

Some at Penn State maintain that, on balance, Joe Paterno is an honorable man who did much more good for the university than bad, and that therefore he should not be harshly judged. Knefelkamp agrees that our responsibility is to understand any situation in its cultural context. Cultural differences are complex, she notes, and “we have a moral and ethical obligation to deeply commit ourselves to understanding issues, complexities and differences.” But, she adds, “we don’t have a moral and ethical requirement to agree with everything.”


By Patricia Lamiell

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

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