The poet T.S. Eliot once said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
Psychologists, in the same vein, talk about a syndrome called “motivated reasoning.”
When we have an emotional stake in the outcome of an argument, we tend to harp upon facts that benefit our side, our team. At the same time, we willfully ignore salient facts that lean the other way.
We are a species that forms tribes, to bring ourselves a sense of safety, belonging and meaning. Then we weave narratives that define our sense of our tribe. And we cling fervently to those narratives, ever more so when they begin to unravel.
All of which brings me to Penn State, Joe Paterno and the Freeh Report on the Jerry Sandusky child abuse debacle.
Nittany Nation has become a tribe that brings identity, honor and meaning to many thousands. And Joe Paterno had long been its beloved patriarch.
It is no wonder people simply could not get their minds around what Joe Pa did (or even more to the point, didn’t do) after he was presented with powerful evidence that one of his closest associates was a despicable monster ravaging the lives of children.
Nittany Nation simply could not face the fact that a revered icon had failed a test of integrity so completely.
But Louis Freeh, in his probe, faced the facts squarely. The former FBI director could not have been more blunt in detailing the years-long, compounding failures by Paterno and other senior officials. They did not do what basic decency, not to mention clearcut federal and state law, required them to do to protect children in danger.
Freeh’s report offers no wiggle room for alibis. He may well have been so fierce precisely because he knew how desperately the Penn State tribe wants to keep believing their hero had not failed so badly.
I’m not a Penn State alum, but I’ve long been a Penn State and Joe Pa fan. I have a sense of how hard this all is for those who bleed blue and white.
But the truth matters more than the tribe.
Justice matters more than the tribe.
What matters most of all is what we owe our children, including the least-protected among them, the very ones upon whom Jerry Sandusky preyed.
Joe Paterno and the others forget that. There is no excuse for their sins.