By now you are probably about ready to send back any further helpings of commentary on the Penn State Football scandal. At the same time I think that you would follow me down the path of intrigue at this morning’s editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks.
In his article, “Let’s All Feel Superior” Brooks is observing a troubling thread of social inconsistency: we are good at pointing out people’s flaws but when faced with similar ethical and moral quandaries we don’t perform very well. Brooks cites the following as data-points:
Online you can find videos of savage beatings, with dozens of people watching blandly. The Kitty Genovese case from the ’60s is mostly apocryphal, but hundreds of other cases are not. A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate. Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was tortured for 24 days by 20 Moroccan kidnappers, with the full knowledge of neighbors. Nobody did anything, and Halimi eventually was murdered.
What is happening? How can people account for a pattern of public outrage of wrongdoing at the same time they model individual inactivity when face to face with similiar scenarios?
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.”
Interesting. The individual makes his or her call of what to do based upon what they want to do. There is nothing external forcing upon or compelling the individual to think or act. Biblically minded people may recall what happened in the Book of Judges, not good. And what characterized their behavior? “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17.6)
To get some perspective Brooks looks back. He also encourages us to look outside of us.
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.
This is such a profound exclamation point to an article indicting the hypocrisy of personal superiority and inner wonderfulness. Indeed, we are not Puritans anymore.
As Christians we are encouraged that our worldview is an “outside in” not an “inside out” perspective. We understand the world around us based upon what God has said in the Scriptures. His word gives understanding and light to dark controversies like this. It provides the mental rebar necessary to walk across the difficult ethical and moral bridges. We understand that we are no better than the worst person on the planet. The ailment of Jerry Sandusky is the ailment of all mankind. We are all sinners in need of salvation. The fact is, Jesus Christ came to save sinners, even people like us. It is here, informed by the wonderfulness of Christ, that personal superiority and inner wonderfulness are undermined.
We are then, through the lenses of the gospel, given clarity for interpreting moral disasters and motivation for confronting them.