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.Right. Many people don't intervene. But does that mean that each one of us has no idea what we will do? In fact, no. We each have a past history we can look back on. We can see what we did in past crises--whether we were willing to cry foul, make waves, speak up, make a phone call--or we were passive. We don't know for sure based on our past history, but we have some indication.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. 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.
Some people simply can’t process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call Normalcy Bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.
Some people suffer from Motivated Blindness; they don’t see what is not in their interest to see. Some people don’t look at the things that make them uncomfortable.
Furthermore, we can prepare for the day when we might be in Paterno's or McQueary's shoes. We can start speaking up about small things now, so we're in shape to take action when something big comes along. A few rebellions-- My father was in the hospital and one of his nurses was a gruff, insensitive jerk. I immediately went to his supervisor and had him put on another floor. My cat was in an emergency hospital having seizures, and the vet tech handled him roughly. I said, instantaneously, "Don't do that!" How rude of me. Well right, sometimes that's necessary. The elementary school invited a clown from McDonald's to give a presentation at my kids' school on health--preposterously enough. I called and complained. They held an assembly for an unpublished writer of children's books to do a reading, and sell the children book afterwards. Another call. Bigger stuff-- The quarterback of the school football team, on a major scholarship, cheated egregiously in a class of mine, and also assisted in others in cheating. I turned him in, and he was expelled. And on and on ....
If you are well-practiced in the art of everyday rebellion--if you take the trouble to do the right thing on a regular basis--I don't think it's true that you're just anyone in the total set of people, of whom it can be said "many people do not intervene." You're in the subset of people who do intervene, routinely, and as needed. Continually putting yourself in that subset surely increases the odds that you will do the right thing, if you're ever in Paterno's or McQueary's shoes.