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

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less
  • Climate change is no longer a financial problem, just a political one.
  • Mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economy would add trillions of dollars in new investments.
  • Public attitudes toward climate change have shifted steadily in favor of action. Now it's up to elected leaders.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Keep reading Show less