Joe Paterno's passing this morning reminds us of the distorting effect of these mental biases. Yes, every obituary must of necessity contain a "but" or, in the NYT's case, an "only to be..." Children were raped and he did not do enough to stop it, or as KR quoted in a comment:
Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.And that may be what was so shocking here. Had this happened at The U or any number of always-under-investigation football factories, this scandal would have been appalling but not unexpected. But Penn State? Joe Pa? He was the coach, and this was the school, which was supposed to be better.
Dawson: Yeah, we did. We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willie.
It is the greatness of what Paterno achieved over the fifty years which preceded 2011 which made these revelations such a gut punch. But let us remember the successes as well as the failure, and be open to the possibility that this was a moral failing and not an affirmative act of evil, or as Isaac wrote in an essay you must re-read today:
I think that Paterno, Curley, Schmidt, and Spanier have given Penn State no choice but to fire them, because the university cannot be seen as supporting or condoning their inaction in any way. But I would be lying to you, and to myself, if I said that I don't understand the impulse not to say anything or do anything. If there is any way to rationalize the behavior, to call the evidence inconclusive, or, failing that, to make it somebody else's responsibility, there is a powerful human instinct to do that. I like to think that if I saw someone raping a child, I would intervene and then go to the police, without regard to any possible consequences to me. But it's easy to say that. Until it happens – never, I hope – I won't know, and neither will you....I'll let Joe Posnanski (from November) have the last word:
They failed as human beings in a way that had agonizing consequences for others. And I know that my initial reaction was that they are all criminals. But now, having thought a lot about it, I think that failing as a human being is not the same thing as being a bad human being. There is enough room for Paterno to have been wrong for not doing anything in 2002 (or maybe 1998) and also to have been honest when he said, in hindsight, that that is the greatest regret in his long and eventful life.
Paterno has paid a price here. His job is gone. His life’s work has been soiled. His reputation is in tatters. Maybe that should be the price. Maybe there should be more of a price. You don’t have to type: “Well, his price is nothing like the price of those victims…” I already know that.The family has requested that in lieu of flowers and gifts, donations go to Special Olympics Pennsylvania and THON, the PSU student-run philanthropy battling pediatric cancer.
But I think the way Joe Paterno has lived his life has earned him something more than instant fury, more than immediate assumptions of the worst, more than the happy cheers of critics who have always believed that there was something phony about the man and his ideals. He deserves what I would hope we all deserve — for the truth to come out, or, anyway, the closest thing to truth we can find.
I don’t think Joe Paterno has gotten that. And I think that’s sad.