Penn State and Us

When I worked with drug addicts, I had a client named Ben.  Ben was in his early twenties, a warehouse worker, a high school drop-out, and an alcoholic who snorted cocaine occasionally.  He was in treatment because the beer and coke exacerbated his temper.  Ben was not a friendly drunk.  Fights with his girlfriends often ended in calls to the police, leading to probation, and to me.

He was also in court-mandated counseling as a sexual abuser.  Ben’s sister accused him of raping his eight-month old niece, and he agreed to attend therapy for offenders, even though the county couldn’t prove he violated the little girl.  Ben came to me for the drug problem.

One day, he described what happened.  Ben was babysitting.  While changing the baby’s diapers, and cleaning her up, he wondered what it would feel like.  So, he gave it a try.  He didn’t consummate, which is why no semen was left behind, but he did penetrate.  He felt sort of bad about it, and wished his sister would let him babysit again, because it wasn’t something he’d ever repeat.  He missed his niece.  Plus, it made family gatherings difficult.

There was a lot about Ben that was appalling.  He hurt people and wouldn’t notice.  For the most part, other people weren’t quite real.  They were things that floated into his field of awareness, and his field of awareness was not broad or deep, since he also wasn’t real bright.  Basic understandings, such as other people have feelings, or punching holes in walls is not polite behavior, took longer for Ben to process.

I liked Ben, even though he was a bully, and a baby molester, and an occasional drunk.  There were times he regretted his actions, or wished he was capable of more, or wanted to prove people wrong.  He even brought his pregnant fiancée for premarital counseling, and allowed me to express my concerns about a baby joining the family, and Ben’s continued drinking.  But his prospective bride resided in a group home for delinquent girls, and attended a school taught by nuns.  She couldn’t wait to escape.  She did agree that Ben wouldn’t change diapers.

He made efforts, but nothing would change his past, or make him a nice guy.  He was a selfish, violent man, with poor boundaries, and a mean streak.  At the same time, he doted on his baby son(!), always had a job, and somehow remained married.  In fact, there was nothing about Ben that made him extremely different from other people I’ve counseled or known.  His character simply possessed exaggerations of traits that are found in us all.

Admitting that truth doesn’t excuse Ben’s behavior.  But it does help to keep things in perspective.  Ben is part of the family, so to speak.  Whatever we define as evil does not exist in outer space somewhere, or in some invisible spirit  realm.  Evil in this world is found solely in ourselves.  We are the agents, as much as we like to blame red men with pitchforks, or women named Eve.

Occasionally, evil is found in egregious acts like those of Ben.  Usually, evil is found in much more mundane and trivial actions.  That’s how evil survives.  Outrageousness eventually gets suppressed, but not the more minute expressions that make the despicable possible in the first place.  Murder is an extreme form of disrespect; rape is an extreme form of male domination.  The daily inhumanities that are exchanged between us provide the necessary conditions for the atrocious examples of inhumanity we regard as evil.

A Jeffrey Dahmer or a Hitler are not different in kind.  They are not foreign species growing in our presence like unwanted weeds.  They are bitter fruits, or ugly flowers, growing in the muck of our commonplace unkindness and greed.

We need to keep that in mind as we contemplate the atrocity that appears to be unwinding at Penn State.  The self-serving reaction is to wonder how somebody could do something so terrible, or how somebody could not report what they saw, or how somebody could cover it up, as if we’ve not done similar things, on a much smaller scale, and continue to do them, on an ordinary basis, every day.

We exploit all kinds of things—sexually, politically, economically, militarily.  The unpaid players on the football team are exploited, as are the state taxpayers who help fund the NFL’s minor leagues.  The current recession was caused by Americans exploiting each other on every possible level; we created our own ponzi scheme.  It’s a part of our history, dating back to slavery, and the tactic hasn’t disappeared.  The appropriate response to Penn State is not to point fingers, but to look at ourselves.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “Penn State and Us”

  1. Wonderful and insightful. I think that it is easier to point the finger rather than look at ourselves because to do so would be too incriminating. Evil (theologically speaking) is the absence of good and that which behaves outside of the good God created to define all right behavior. The tragedies that occured at Penn State have become even further testimonies of mans inability to own his true spiritual states.

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