Penn State, Joe Paterno, and Millenials: Are We Stuck on Tolerance?

As a former Penn State faculty member, I am overwhelmed and outraged by the stories we are hearing out of Happy Valley.  My colleagues across the country continue to ask me why so many students have rallied in support of Coach Paterno, despite revelations that clearly suggest merely following the letter of a reporting policy is insufficient in a case alleged to be this egregious.  Are Millennials – at least the thousands chanting, “We want Joe” – missing a sensitivity chip?

 

This is a guest post by Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science and gender studies at USC and the author of Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics.

As a former Penn State faculty member, I am overwhelmed and outraged by the stories we are hearing out of Happy Valley.  My colleagues across the country continue to ask me why so many students have rallied in support of Coach Paterno, despite revelations that clearly suggest merely following the letter of a reporting policy is insufficient in a case alleged to be this egregious.  Are Millennials – at least the thousands chanting, “We want Joe” – missing a sensitivity chip?


The answer, I’m afraid, is mixed. Paterno is part of “us.”  The now-young men at the center of this tragedy, on the other hand, are presumed to be outsiders. The Millennials who are more outraged about the treatment of their beloved coach than the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky are displaying a deficit of compassion.  This deficit is part of our larger contemporary context, which is plagued by the Oppression Olympics, a term that describes what prevents us from recognizing our common ground and, worse, obscures common sense responses to outrageous violations of the public’s trust.

My research and work with Millennials over the past 15 years indicates that many Millennials boldly aspire to end persistent political problems in their lifetime. We as a society have done a great job cultivating that interest as parents, teachers, and citizens.  Moreover, Millennials are more tolerant on social issues than Generation X or Baby Boomers. But unfortunately tolerance alone cannot overcome the lack of compassion displayed by those Penn State students in the face of widespread evidence of institutional failure on behalf of “at-risk” boys at the Penn State football facilities. 

Are we stuck on tolerance?

Together with Millennials, we share some of the responsibility for the continued deficit of compassion in our world.  After all, we’ve spent the past 30 years emphasizing tolerance as the gold standard for how we treat each other, particularly across divisions of race and class.  Tolerance is all that’s usually mandated across divisions of race and class, the precise groups that come to mind when we hear that the Second Mile Foundation targeted “at risk” youth. The problem with tolerance, however, is that it is a minimum-level of acceptance.  When I tolerate you, I don’t have to think about your well-being or be as concerned about you as I might be if you were my child or my little brother or sister.  I can therefore either do the minimum, to report up the chain of command in this instance, or simply not care at all.  

Due to the length of time that has elapsed since the first allegations of assault, if or when the alleged victims of Sandusky reveal themselves to the public, most will be well beyond the tender ages that could spark our empathy. Paterno, on the other hand, has been as familiar as a grandfather to us. How might we proceed, knowing we risk looking at them solely as the young men they are now, rather than the young boys they used to be?

First, we can remind ourselves that simply being tolerant of others is not enough to spark our empathy for a group, particularly when they are not members of our own groups.  This obstacle makes it even more difficult to stand in solidarity with that group.  Eradicating the lack of compassion is key. As hard as it might seem, and as hardened as we have become, we need to care for each child as if they are our own going forward.

Second, we can work together to create an institutional culture that encourages speaking up and out to the right authorities.  Graham Spanier might have been the necessary authority, but he was not a sufficient authority.  State College police were the sufficient authority.  It’s not always popular, and yes you may risk repercussions.  But blowing the whistle doesn’t just stop the play on the field, it can facilitate finding common ground.

Last but not least, we can work together – Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers – on an intergenerational effort to take back our world from the Oppression Olympics.  Only by enacting our connections and contributions to each other’s well-being can we unleash our shared desire to fully pursue any deep and abiding interest in changing the world.  

© 2011 Ange-Marie Hancock, author of Solidarity Politics for Millenials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics

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