Images of the church lady from “Saturday Night Live” came dancing in myhead as I read a recent column by Daivd Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” in The New York Times.
Brooks’ Nov. 14, 2011, column came out in the aftermath of the child sex scandal at Penn Stae University, but I just now read it. Brooks wrote:
“First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.”
Brooks said studies have shown that people often do not do what they ought to do or what they think they would do if they discovered such an atrocity.
“Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.”
In a 1999 study at Penn State, of all places, students were asked if they would “make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes,” Brooks reported. “When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.”
We’ve all heard stories of people standing by and watching as terrible things happended to others. But why?
The Apostle Paul said we do the things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we want to do. In other words, our intentions differ from our actions.
David Brooks gets this point without allusion to the Bible.
“People are really good at 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. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, ‘Blind Spots,’ ‘When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.’
“In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
“But we’re not Puritans anymore. 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 — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
“Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’
“The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”
Ah, that “inner wonderfulness,” is such sweet bliss, but so is ignorance, and they are connected.
Back in the 1980s, a friend and I used to go for walks in Chatham, Illinois, for a little exercise and mostly for a little talk. Joe was a committed Democrat who worked for a U.S. senator from Illinois, and I described myself at the time as a “Reagan Democrat.”
While that is how I used to describe myself politcally, there was one thing Ronald Reagan used to say and imply something that bothered me. He was convinced of the basic goodness of people–that people, when given the chance, will do the right thing. That seemed naive to me then and it still does.
The Bible paints a picture of people being created in the “image of God” but having “fallen.” The Apostle Paul said we all are sinners.
The biblical picture seems more accurate than Reagan or others who espouse that “inner wonderfulness.” The image of God stills shines through in many people in many circumstances, but this image has been marred by self-centeredness–our sin, if you will. This sinfulness is in evidence, even among seemingly “good” people.
There is an “inner wonderfulness;” it comes from the Creator of all of this. There also is an inner sinfulness; it comes from our heritage of self-centeredness. It is dangerous to think either does not exist, because that is ignoring reality, that is living in a fantasy world of one’s own making.