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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Penn State

Live and Let Live: Why moral ambiguity won't work

Here is a piece I wrote this summer on the heels of the Aurora, Colorado shootings. It wasn't picked up elsewhere, and I don't think I ever published it here. * * * * *

On June 16, 2012, Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece entitled, “Moral Dystopia,” and asked this question: “Have our materialism, narcissism and cynicism about the institutions knitting society - schools, sports, religion, politics, banking - dulled our sense of right and wrong?”

Assuming yes to Dowd’s question, I’d like to ask: what happens to the society with the millstone of individual self-sovereignty hanging from its neck?

We have our answers: Penn State University and Aurora, Colorado.

First, let me begin by saying that neither the victims of the shooting in Aurora nor the boys preyed upon by Jerry Sandusky invited their fate. They were not being punished for their sin; rather, they were the victims of another’s. In the landscape of a fallen world, the soil of human experience is seeded with suffering, much that we would call, “undeserved.”

And while the victims of these events were by no means complicit, others were. Consider first the longstanding predatory behavior of Jerry Sandusky, defensive football coordinator at Penn State, and the indefensible self-interest of University officials. As the Freeh report states, many staff members and coaches knew it had been Sandusky’s regular practice to shower with the boys he brought to campus from Second Mile, the non-profit organization Sandusky ran. The first police report against Sandusky was filed in 1998. But in 1999, Sandusky retired with a fat pension and an additional lump sum payment of $168,000.

Why, we might wonder, when Mike McQuery walked into a Penn State locker room in 2001, catching sight of Sandusky in an explicitly sexual act with a young boy, did he walk out, waiting to report the incident the following morning? Why, when University officials confronted Sandusky about the incident McQuery reported having witnessed, did they tell him they were “uncomfortable” about what had happened, as if the subject at hand was, not a rape scene, but the fit of a pair of pants? Why was nothing done when the evidence suggested these were not isolated incidents? Because no one dared endanger, either his job, or the Holy Grail of Penn State Football.

McQuery, in defense of his inaction, asserted that, “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.” And I can be made to see his point. When all the language you’ve ever been taught is the grammar of personal preference, how can you be made to speak moral outrage when the situation requires it? Personal preferences inspire “discomfort.” Moral evil demands “outrage.”

Which it what all of us feel on the heels of what has happened in Aurora, Colorado. We are outraged that innocent lives were taken the night James Holmes walked into a movie theater, armed with a shotgun, assault rifle and handgun. We are outraged that evil can be so indiscriminate, that men can be so perverse. Our categories explode when trying to understand events like these.

And they explode, in part, because they’re fatefully misguided. Our contemporary cultural categories for behavior are no longer agreed-upon categories of right and wrong. Few of us now dare situate personal choice on this kind of moral spectrum. Live and let live. And it feels like a benevolent enough way of getting along in the midst of our differences - until Aurora and Penn State leave us searching for our words of outrage.

But moral outrage isn’t a language of fluency when personal preference is king. And according to Dan Ariely, author of the new book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, self-sovereignty is the reigning moral code. While the majority of us do morally arbitrate our choices, we don’t do it according to any kind of universal standard. Instead, abiding by our self-constructed notions of right and wrong, we remain willing to commit just enough indiscretion so as not to offend our self-appraisal as those who are fundamentally “good.” However, as David Brooks points out in his op-ed piece entitled, “The Moral Diet,” there’s a measurement problem. “You can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. . . [And] most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently.”

Which is why Christians need to enter into the ongoing cultural conversation about morality and offer answers to questions like the one Dowd raises. Yes, there is dulled sense of right and wrong, and we had better work toward rectifying our moral malaise. But I’d argue that many Christians have grown uncomfortable with the categorical language of right/wrong, good/bad. The gay marriage issue is probably the strongest example of this kind of reluctance shared by younger (under 40) evangelicals. Rachel Held Evans, in her much discussed and disputed blog post, “How to win a culture war and lose a generation,” cites clear evidence that the church is losing precious influence because we’re categorically “anti-gay.” Is it worth it? Evans asks.

And whether or not I agree with Held Evans about gay marriage, I disagree fundamentally with her tact. She’s asking the wrong kind of question, the same question Penn State officials asked when they chose to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s proven track record of molesting boys. Moral ambiguity hangs on questions like these, which essentially reduce answers to value propositions.

Value propositions just won’t do when we’re talking about boys being raped in showers and people being shot in theaters.

Give me a language of outrage. And God help me, because I think I can throw a punch.