David Perez looks into the culture of silence and what it did to Penn State.
The closed world of the “old boys club” isn’t the exclusive purview of backslapping, old, white guys. It’s a universal mindset, a deeply human tribalism based upon the twin pillars of loyalty and solidarity. The foundation supporting these pillars is a code of silence that is always implied and occasionally explicit. All three of these concepts, including the latter, have their positive attributes. The idiom “loose lips sink ships” comes from a literal truth, and there are certain situations when silence is not only a practical necessity but a moral imperative as well. If a friend of yours confides in you that they’re homosexual, or pregnant, or if his/her life is in danger, and they expect you to maintain their secret, then there’s an obligation to keep quiet. When one is placed in the role of confidant, it is in many ways a test of character. One earns that sense of trust, and as such, it’s a highly-valued character trait.
What differentiates this from the culture of tight-lipped loyalty expounded by the “old boys club” mentality is the extent to which one is expected to carry forward this solidarity in silence. As a kid, an oft-repeated phrase in school and on the street was “snitches get stitches.” The expectation behind this was often quite innocuous, urging with an empty threat of violence to protect someone from detention or punishment at home. It was a message that took on a more sinister edge as I came of age. In my all-boys Catholic high school (and in my neighborhood), there was an understanding that snitches would indeed receive stitches. One could dodge getting jumped on the street by simply not hanging out, but there was no such avoidance possible in school. In that setting, being labeled as a stoolie or a rat was a sure route to social death. Such outcasts were barely worthy of bullying, as it was far more effective to just exclude them from acceptance. It is the ugly side of the genuine sense of brotherhood such surroundings engender, and it is practically impossible to avoid.
Stigmatizing snitches is not unique to hyper-masculine environments, as little changed when I would take the bus home from Fordham Plaza. I was never much of a basketball player, as I was fat, slow, and thus earth-bound. I played enough pick-up, however, to know the basic rule on what constituted unfair play: “No blood, no foul.” This and “snitches get stitches” were part of the same general mentality inculcated into boys and girls alike: it was all about respect, “death before dishonor,” and other such idioms based on what are, in retrospect, very rigid and old-fashioned ideas about personal pride, loyalty, and solidarity. The common thread in all this was that snitching was not only taboo but unforgivable, and that those who cooperated with the police deserved a cruel fate. Part of the reason for this (in NYC, at least) was a series of high-profile police brutality incidents compounded by the “Blue Wall of Silence” that NYPD rank and file put up when such incidents occurred. It was, in essence, the cop equivalent of “Stop Snitchin’,” and it created a sense of paranoia and hostility in many communities that remains.
Lost in all of this, of course, is any consideration of right and wrong. The penalties for snitches range from marginalization and beatings to outright death, regardless of whether they actually opened their mouths and said something. Murders go unsolved and lives are permanently scarred, all out of a warped sense that doing the right thing and protecting one’s own are the same thing. Such a mentality subsumes basic decency under an inflexible doctrine that ultimately serves the narrow self-interests of a few. Think about it: if something fucked up happens, and you know about it but don’t say anything, then you are protecting the guilty at the expense of the innocent. It seems morally straightforward, but it is far more nuanced than this because of the depth of the attachment many have to the code of silence.
The major reason for this is that there’s a great deal of self-interest involved in keeping quiet. If no harm visits you while you stay silent, then it follows that you are best served by remaining so. Conscience and morality have a way of dissolving in the face of overwhelming self-interest. So it was with Joe Paterno, who was widely seen as an example of moral rectitude amid a sea of chaos and corruption as recently as last week. Today, he is unarguably a moral failure. While serving as a role model and a father figure to his players, the students at Penn State, and millions of admirers in America, he failed to notify the police when told by a graduate assistant that he saw Paterno’s former number two, Jerry Sandusky, raping a child. He tried to make it someone else’s problem by forwarding the information upstairs to administrators. The administrators, now facing criminal charges, stayed quiet as well and an alleged child predator remained free from the prospect of prosecution—to say nothing of justice—up to this point. When presented with the chance, no one did the right thing. Moral failures are rarely more cut and dry.
Joe Paterno’s legacy is not even in tatters. It is immaterial. It doesn’t matter. By staying silent to guard his legacy, he and the Penn State administration obliterated all the genuine goodwill his tenure in charge of the football program generated for the institution and the man. One could question whether football matters at all, but that’s not even a worthy question of the matter at hand. This is about children who were victimized twice: first by a rapist, and then by a culture of silence borne from a pathetically misguided set of priorities. One can only speculate whether Paterno and the administrators in question were in denial that Sandusky was capable of something so heinous, or if they were more cynically attempting to guard their respective legacies and the institution by not saying anything. It doesn’t matter, and the most that can be salvaged from this is that some semblance of justice—though it obviously will never be proportional—can be served.
What happened in Happy Valley is an extreme example of what can go wrong in a culture of silence. Yet we as a society are delusional if we think that this closed-shop mentality can’t create similar monstrosities: they have, and likely will continue to do so because we are frail and self-interest is both overwhelmingly attractive and easy to misjudge. Whether it exists in a place that is the epitome of the old boys club, or in Ciudad Juárez, it shields the guilty from accountability and precludes people from acting on their conscience. In this way, it is uniquely destructive as it simultaneously makes victims of victims twice over, and villains of the silent who may otherwise act. If that’s what happens when we stop snitching, then we need to start snitching—now.
photo: matteostaltari / flickr
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
I Failed, Rick Morris
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green
Penn State: What Are We Talking About?, L. Edward Day
We (Still) Are, Cameron Conaway
Cognitive Dissonance and the Sandusky Situation, Justin Cascio
Start Snitching, David Perez