We Are (Still)

by - Monday, November 14, 2011

from www.ibleedcrimsonred.com

 from psupodcast.blogspot.com


I keep think I will have my mind around the incidents last week at my school Penn State to write about them cogently here. I am not sure I will get there, so I am going to write about it now. Certainly, my voice on this isn't worth too much amongst the onslaught of voices, but as other alumni reflect, I want to as well. So there.
Penn State at it's best, to me, was not about sports, masculinity, competition, or hierarchy (though I certainly wouldn't deny those have their place in the culture) but collaboration, kindness, and a genuine and very deep felt sense of community. You could see these in the little things everyday without even noticing them (though I miss them now); people opened doors and smiled at each other, students would actually go out and shovel snow off cars before Christmas break, and so many events, fundraisers, and groups supported and enriched the community. In my experience, the Penn State Writing Center absolutely exemplified both the spirit of my experience at PSU and a mode of intellectual empowerment against oppression and self-doubt.

Despite these positive experiences and the love I have for my school, it would be foolish to ignore that we were all participating in a system that would facilitate and allow ugly actions such as these to continue for so long. I think the most disturbing thing about the report is how many people knew or had an inkling and did nothing. If that doesn't make you angry, I don't know what will. I have minimal opinions on the firings themselves, and though they are sad, I am proud of a school that would take this strong stand against complacency (one man's legacy is not worth a whole school's). Joe Pa is not Penn State. We are. 

Of course, it has been oft stated, but it is worth saying again that the boys who suffered his abuse cannot and should not be forgotten in all this, especially considering how many of them were victimized over long periods of time and suffered in silence sometimes for over a decade. What they went through is essentially unimaginable, which I figure is why people speak of them so little. It is a very difficult thing to respond to directly, and continually reminds us of our own powerlessness.

I read somewhere, maybe on Jezebel, a writer that questioned whether the reaction would have been the same if they were little girls (or even more difficultly, women). This is, in some ways, quite fair on two counts (though, on the other hand, it is a low blow to the student population); when I entered Penn STate, they told us that the sexual assault rate at Penn State is shockingly high (it could be as high as1 in 7 women?). In the past few days, Penn State students have devoted their money and famous philanthropic enthusiasm into Rainn, an organization that fights rape abuse and incest (you can check their info at Rainn.org). I hope that this event will continue to motivate the students to fight against all forms of sexual violence, not just ones as sensational as Jerry Sandusky (who was disgusting on the news today, but I think it is worth noting how similar his defense is to someone like Herman Cain). One of the best ways to push against someone who abuses their authority is to collectively deny that power. I feel like Penn State is doing that. 

Honestly, I still think this question is unfair, but it highlights some of the parts of the Penn State culture that may have both allowed for the horrible acts, their cover-up, and their eventual sensationalization; this isn't just a crisis on Penn State campus, its about sports, and manhood, and what it means to be on a team. This is, in its own way, a crisis of masculinity. The way people understood these men, who controlled these big manly football players, was super masculine and powerful, and this comes with an assumption of heteronormativity (and homosocial physical contact) that covered for the guy for many years. 

More so a football team, like other patriarchal hierarchies like a corporation or the military, encourages an absolute faith in the structure of power that is meant to allow everyone to only care about their own little sphere. There is a particular name for this syndrome, but if you think your only responsibility is to plug into the system, it is easy for these things to be elided. People get lost in these systems, and others are absolved of real personal responsibility. I absolutely do not understand what that graduate assistant was thinking when he turned around after witnessing a rape. I want to believe I would have absolutely lost my shit and thrown a shoe at Sandusky or something. But according to many studies, part of what these athletes (and other men) are being trained to do is see strength in "loyalty" to the system. I think it's fair to see that these ethics have failed (much as they have in these other spheres), but how do we as a public respond?

from www.cbsnews.com
This is the question I keep asking myself- what the hell do you do with all of this? You cannot just look at this and think it is the bad decision of one fucked up man. It implicates the entire system that facilitated and employed him. What do you do with a community after you recognize the rot in it? Today in the Washington Post, a young alumni lamented this as his final loss of faith in the generation before ours, looking for them to lead when they seem to not have it in them. I totally understand his frustration (I've had more than a few rants about Baby Boomers); he wants our parents to take up that leadership, to not leave us in such a mess as we enter into adulthood. Despite the fact that his sense of generations seems ambiguous in his rhetoric, there is a second step we have to read into this article. When you feel that the authority figures and systems you leaned on failed you, it must be time to get up and do something yourself. This isn't just a symptom of an ugly moment in Penn State's history, this is the essential imperative of growing up. If someone isn't stepping up, it must be your turn.

If there is anything positive to take out of these traumas (and I am starting to suspect there may be many), it is that so many people are doing just this. I am just young enough to still have a lot of faith in young people, that we can make things better, but also that we can see what is worth keeping. To me, a big aspect of this is reconsidering our roles as witnesses to each other, a role we play more than any other. This is where my time at the writing center was so instructive.You see and witness people in almost everything you do, but the challenge is to continually do so more kindly and ethically, which is a whole lot of responsibility.

At PSU, that is the deeply felt imperative to take care of, even love, one another. That's powerful, and I am encouraged to see it being put into action. I know I have been touched this week by the current students' responses (as well as my cousin Ben Jones's writing- check his blog on http://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-football/2011/11/14/2560913/penn-state-scandal-football-joe-paterno or his twitter Ben_Jones88) to the situation. The candlelight vigil is a beautiful start. So is the simple reclaiming of "We are" after the loss on Saturday ( I teared up... and I really could care less about football. I went to like 5 games in 4 years) and the frequent use of the alma mater-

 May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

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