The Courage to Shed a Loyalty to Evil

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I think the Penn State/Paterno/Sandusky story is so important in part because it is so universal.

It causes us to reflect on the meaning of loyalty, and the meaning of courage.

Loyalty is only a virtue depending on the object of one's loyalty. A mafioso is loyal, but his is a criminal loyalty.

The difficulty comes when one is asked to be loyal to a worthy cause or institution that is perpetuating or harboring evil.

Loyalty to a certain image of Penn State meant that some pretty important people turned a blind eye to evil.

Loyalty to a certain image of the Roman Catholic Church meant the same.

Loyalty to a certain image of the United States of America has meant the same.

Loyalty to a certain image of our own family, or tribe ... ditto.

Notice that I say "a certain image" because I don't believe we are truly being loyal to any of these worthy institutions or entities by ignoring or covering up evil that they do, or that exists within them unchallenged. In fact, I would say exactly the opposite.

But how difficult it is to see this when you're in the middle of it!

Let's say that I was a 44-year-old white man, same as I am now, living in my own hometown in the Deep South in 1956. I am seeing every day black people discriminated against, by law. Do I stand up against it? I am sorry to say that I am virtually certain that I would not. To have done so would have required going against ... well, everybody in my own community.

I think it almost certain that if I had seen, say, a white man raping a black boy, I would have intervened, even violently. But unless I was confronted directly with something that heinous, I probably would have euphemized and abstracted the evil away, because I couldn't have faced my own moral responsibility.

Here's the more interesting question about something like this (I mean, the daily evil of Jim Crow): Would I have even been able to see it?

That is, would my own acculturation, especially acculturation in in-group loyalties, have made it impossible, or virtually impossible, for my mind to accept what was plainly happening in front of my eyes? I'm not looking for an excuse, mind you; I'm trying to understand why we do the things we do, and why we fail to do those things we ought to do.

We have to maintain moral systems to shame those who behave badly, if only to educate ourselves and our young in what constitutes moral behavior, and what is cowardly and despicable. We must always, always be vigilant on our own consciences for signs of moral failure, or moral insensitivity.

All have sinned and fallen short, but all also have the capability, and the duty, to do better.

Still, I wonder what evils I, and you, are overlooking now that our children or grandchildren will one day wonder, "How on earth did you sit there and not do a thing?"

The other night I was reading to my two younger children from a children's biography of George Washington. We got to the part where he owned slaves, and the kids found that hard to take. They thought Washington was a good man, and ... so how did he own slaves? This led to more discussion, and my seven year old son was shocked to learn that his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy, which is to say, unavoidably, in part for the cause of keeping black people enslaved.

I saw the confusion in his eyes and hurt for him, but I didn't try to tell him the contradiction was nothing to worry about. I did try to help him understand how it was that good and decent people could have done such evil, thinking it good.

But that's a lot for a seven year old's mind to figure out. It's a lot for anybody to figure out.

So we offload our moral thinking to the tribe, to authorities, or to anyone who can relieve us of the burden of our moral duties as human beings.

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