Culture can make you do (almost) anything

16 Dec

Here’s a headline that grabbed my attention earlier this week: “[Penn State University] culture explained away Sandusky”  (

While the article recycles a lot of familiar information, it’s a chilling read nonetheless because it’s still stunning and profoundly disquieting to be reminded of this alleged serial child molester’s 12-year, community-enabled victimization of children that his community credited him for helping.

In calling out the school’s culture, journalist Brett Blackledge and his colleagues don’t let individuals off the hook: rather, they offer an explanation of how otherwise sensible, aware adults who are certainly opposed to child sexual abuse could be passive accomplices to Sandusky.

Yeah, I know. It’s still hard to fathom.

Let’s start with culture: Michael Pollan calls it, “Mom.” What he means is that culture is those values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and rules that comprise our sense of what is normal and right because they were taught to us by caregivers, mentors and role models. Culture is: look both ways before crossing, eat vegetables, have children, try to balance work and play. But wait, aren’t those just truths, or at the very least universal good advice? Well, consider if: you’re Papuan (and live in a remote area of Irian Jaya that has no roads), Inuit (and walrus is available year-round but plants aren’t), Chinese (and live under a one-child policy) or French (and you have a legally enforced 35-hr work week). But I’ll also say that culture doesn’t have to be unique. Many cultures can share the same ideas and practices. It doesn’t make those ideas and practices acultural.

Culture is also: rape and child abuse are wrong. While these seem like even more universal truths, I would argue that “rape” is defined differently across nations and cultures (including whether or not a culture acknowledges that a wife can be raped by her husband, or a man can be raped at all). And what we do when confronted with these wrongs is also cultural: whether we yell for the police, dole out justice privately among ourselves, sweep things under the carpet or phone it in to the newspapers.

Families have cultures; workplaces have culture; teams, clubs, political parties and schools have cultures. We learn these cultures when we first become part of these organizations, and if we stick around, we soon forget there was any culture to learn because it becomes so ingrained it like’s breathing: we just follow the rules. And that seems to describe some of what was happening at Penn State: people breathed in the culture of reverence for football, Paterno and Sandusky. Meanwhile, they breathed in the culture of the school handling things itself.

But the Penn State case cannot be explained by culture alone. The concerted nonaction of multiple university officials and employees seems like a textbook example of bystander effect (Genovese syndrome), which I wrote about in my 11/21/11 post. The bystander effect is the social phenomenon of collective passivity in an emergency situation: the theory is that the mere presence of another witness allows me to rationalize that there’s no real problem or reason to intervene (because surely they would do something, if something really needed to be done. Right?) The bystander effect is evidenced in 2008 National Crime Victimization Survey statistics that reveal that 68% of all physical assaults are witnessed by a third-party. In a gross contradiction of odds, the more bystanders, the more likely no one will do anything, according to research.

So we have cultural norms, bystander effect… and still, the equation seems incomplete. Because there is, as we all believe, still individual sentience and will to consider. There is the agency of one person to make a choice, despite conditioning and inertia. And we are horrified that so many individuals did not exercise their consciences and their free will.

To that, I say: when did they practice? When did they previously learn, observe and get to try for themselves standing up, instead of standing by? When did they get to practice resilience and persistence: saying no, and when told to be quiet, saying it again and again, until they were finally heard? When did they have a chance to exercise their voices and see what impact they could have?

In my opinion, lack of practice is a critical part of what happened at Penn State: we all have strong convictions about what is right and wrong, and believe that when compelled to step up, we would. But without practice, how can we be so confident that we’ll be ready to put one foot down, and then the other?

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