As the scandal at Penn State continues to dominate the news, talk about why the key administrators and law enforcement ‘didn’t do more’ is accompanied by disgusted head-shaking: because of ‘fear of losing their jobs.’ Such speculation, while not wrong, has not taken into consideration ‘the bystander effect‘—which suggests that most of us would not have acted much differently.
Although the Huffington Post has already noted this angle, it bears repeating on a bullying blog site.
Of course they were afraid of losing their jobs, just as fourth grade bystanders are afraid of ‘telling’ on a bully, for fear of losing all that they have—their social standing in the schoolyard. But they also did what most bystanders do: they deferred responsibility, assuming that ‘someone else’ would take care of it. Paterno passed the buck to Curley, Curley to Schultz and presumably, Spanier. Spanier was let go immediately because as president, he should have stepped in. But as president, he must delegate, and he had Curley overseeing athletics…..and Curley of course deferred to the president….and round it goes…..each thinking the other was ‘handling’ the situation.
This is not to defend what they did, or to suggest that no cover-up was involved. But it is to add another consideration to our understanding of how and why it happened. Kitty Genovese had how many witnesses to her murder, all of whom deferred to the person in the next apartment, who might have seen something more….and ‘handled’ the situation.
It is a question of the cost of assuming responsibility in our society—how forgiving are we if someone ‘says something’ and is wrong? Not to mention, what is often (though clearly not in this instance!) the cost of being right?