The Penn State Scandal: Could Addressing Evil Have Helped Prevent It?

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The Penn State scandal brings up questions about morality and behavior. One issue that has been largely ignored is that of evil and how it is not as rare as we would like to believe.

The Penn State scandal continues to make headlines as everyone tries to make sense of what happened. More alleged victims are coming forward, other coaches are weighing in on the negligence of the PSU coaching and athletic staff, and Jerry Sandusky is claiming that he isn’t guilty of being a pedophile. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what should have happened and what should be done about what did.

One of the more interesting articles I’ve read on the topic talked about the possible reasons why Mike McQueary did not immediately stop the alleged rape he witnessed. Although now he seems to be changing his story, in McQueary’s earlier testimony he said that he walked away and called his father to ask what to do. To most of us, this behavior is incomprehensible. What in the world would cause someone to not try and help a child being abused? The author of the article suggested that it possibly could have been because McQueary could not reconcile the image of a pedophile (an evil person) with the Jerry Sandusky he knew as coach, mentor and good human being.

We all have pretty strong feelings on evil. When I was a professor, I used to begin a course on family psychology by having students read Israel Charney’s (1996) chapter on evil in personality. Students usually freaked out a bit because the author was suggesting that we make evil a relational diagnosis in the DSM. Although they struggled to articulate their objections, their horror was mainly because evil is huge, recognizable and hopefully rare. Evil is reserved for people like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot and Khaddafi, not people we know and certainly not people who start foundations for disadvantaged youth.

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But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Evil isn’t as simple as we would like it to be, nor is it all that rare. We delight in putting Hitler in a box and self-righteously saying that of course we would have immediately understood that he was evil and would never have followed him. But that wasn’t the case for a lot of people. If you read accounts of Hitler from people who knew him, they talk about how brilliant, articulate, brave, artistic and charismatic he was. Those are hardly the characteristics we associate with evil. Moreover, Hitler was just one man. He could never have done so much damage all by himself; he had to have people helping him. Within the millions of people who followed Hitler, there were numerous doubters, people who ignored what they knew to be wrong because they didn’t know what to do or how to stand up to those more influential than they. Sound familiar?

Again, I can hear those out there claiming that they would have spoken out for the downtrodden and abused, that they would never follow such evil. They firmly believe that they would not voluntarily do mean things to others, especially those who are in vulnerable positions. However, the Milgram experiments showed that most people would. In these very famous experiments, ordinary people believed that they were shocking subjects like themselves for the mere purpose of learning correct answers. Although there were a few who refused to do it, most of these regular folks did the shocking even though the subjects (who were in reality research confederates who were not being shocked at all) screamed, pleaded and eventually fell silent like they were unconscious. Among other things, these experiments demonstrated that authority is a powerful influence on behavior and that people will actually perpetrate evil on others even if there is very little at stake.

In other words, we all have the potential for evil within us. That is why otherwise good soldiers commit wartime atrocities or upstanding people just snap and act in ways that no one ever would have imagined they could. And this is why I think it is a mistake to paint some people, like child molesters, as All Bad. If we go around thinking that we can recognize evil whenever we see it, we are likely to be fooled. If we think that evil people don’t have goodness in them, then we will never believe that otherwise decent folks can be abusive, corrupt or dangerous — and that puts us at risk. It makes us doubt that the person we see behaving horribly can possibly be doing what we think they are. It makes us less likely to intervene because we know that person and they are not evil. It makes us manufacture justifications and rationalizations so that we can still believe in the goodness of that person and not worry about the evil.

If, however, we acknowledge that evil does coexist with goodness, then the situation can change. Instead of seeing people only the way we want them to be, we can view them as they really are and not be surprised. Instead of vilifying people for their darkest impulses, we can focus on treatment. Instead of seeking to punish, we can look to prevention. For example, what if Jerry Sandusky had been kept away from children and only allowed in areas, like coaching and fund raising, where he could do the most good? He might still have had the (alleged) urges, but no lives would have been ruined and Mike McQueary would not have had to face such a moral dilemma. How I wish that had been the case.

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