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Defense at the Center: Who Is Really Listening About the Bullying?

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Whenever anyone, our child or another's or an adult in trouble, tells someone about a person who has done wrong, someone is bound to get in trouble. Of course, that is, unless the information is hushed, unless the term "If you see something say something" is meaningful only when it's convenient, or when one of us is not on the firing line.

As a fairly uninitiated bystander when it comes to football, I at first felt protective of Joe Paterno in the recent scandal regarding the Penn State football hero and coach and his apparent neglect to notify the proper authorities when he was notified by a graduate student that his defensive coach had molested a young boy in the shower. My first impulse was to feel bad for him, and it's actually not my last either, at least in any facile way. He is 84, has done wonders for Penn State and for academics at Penn State since he himself is academically and intellectually inclined and has been interested in the full character of his players rather than athletic prowess only.

When I read some of the details of Jerry Sandusky's violent act and then his other acts against young boys, the rage came. Predictably I and many of us get angry and wish to see justice done. But if it is done quickly and dramatically, another scandal may be "done" or debated at least for days but deeper problems will remain ignored. We will miss the absurdity and the lethal contradictions we are communicating to our kids both about the safety and lack thereof of their own existence, and about the integrity of adults all over their lives. Joe Paterno has apparently been a hero for many, and sadly it may be time to know our heroes are human and fallible, engaged in political motivations and fears which we, the other adults, need to face.

A big problem is that we tend to flee from context, and from implications. We tell our kids to report bullying when many parents feel bullied by a system that judges them, and many parents also bully their children in a context of very punitive or mechanical parenting advice that misses all too often the intimacy of a trusting connection. In addition what do we do to bullies or parents or kids at fault? We fire them or humiliate them and so the motivation to hide the truth about shameful acts increases. How many school administrations are loathe to examine bullying right under their noses because they will lose funding? The problems aren't in one school only or in one college only, and in fact we hear all the time about whistle blowers receiving degrading treatment rather than real appreciation.

Many kids lie for good reason as well, since they know that to tell the truth will mean punishment, judgment and a lack of understanding and caring help. And so it goes that lying is really encouraged, if often only beneath the surface. We refuse to get that if we want the truth, some of it will contain messages of disappointment in us, the significant adults in our kids' lives. We can't really insist on truth or even on our really wishing for it unless we can "handle" the accountability it may bring. And we will never be able to handle that if the atmosphere is always filled with the need for a scapegoat.

We hail to morality as if there were good and bad only, and so we preach and preach and preach the words of cooperation to our kids but we don't tell them the truth about all of us having good and bad potential and feelings. We leave them and each other "flat" when we ostracize only of those who commit the bad actions, while we refrain from realizing how often we succumb to lying or cruelty or negligence by not helping the people who mistreat, who fall, who have blemishes on their behavior. A favorite way of adding to the atmosphere of danger and of bullying is the ease with which so many of us, big and small, unconsciously decide not to know, to see, to hear.

Joe Paterno, I surmise, might have been in conflict when he heard the information. I can't get inside his head but I know he somehow failed to worry enough about the kid who was seen and heard being sodomized. If, however, we want to look at him, we should be willing to avoid the crucifixion routine and to remember we are as a culture ignoring cruelty and violence in our own country and abroad every day.

If we want to deal with bullying and set an example for our kids we have to build the courage and the safety to begin allowing in information. This includes information about how we are becoming colder and colder towards the poor and sick and weak while we tell our kids about tolerance and cooperation, compassion. Too often we preach civility rather than fostering empathy.

We, all of us, participate in a culture where one thing is preached and another thing done. If we want to change that we have to make it possible to share our worries, admit our sins before they become crimes.

It is scary to hear the truth, scary to know it and scary to tell it. If we want our children to do it, we might have to do it too. And we might have to think about how we can handle just how scared we are when we hear a truth whose telling might get us into trouble. To be continued.