People Like Us

The Australian reaction to the recent events in Boston has been typical. A Prime Ministerial address; expressions of concern for friends in Boston; Australians in Boston reporting their safety yet vulnerability; saturation of analysis and human interest stories in the news media; and opinion makers discussing the potential for similar events to occur in Sydney, Melbourne, or anywhere, but definitely here.

The tragedy, fear, excitement and terror provoked by events like Boston is that it happens to people like us, in places we like to visit, in places we dream of living, or perhaps where our dreams live. Australians don’t dream of living in Damascus. Australians don’t holiday in Baghdad. Our dreams don’t reside in Mogadishu.

Events like those in Boston should remind us that our order and security, our policies and planning, our bodies and bones are not that different from those of people not like us, who live in places that we don’t visit or dream about. These events should remind us that we bleed and break like anyone. But the people in Boston are not anyone, they are like us.

At this stage there is no information on the ‘them’ that did this to us. But whatever their rationale, events like this, like 9/11, like London do not invigorate the Western imagination – or more accurately the Anglo-American imagination – to consider that like them, we live a finite, vulnerable, and precarious life. Rather events like this reinforce our resolve to protect and love people like us as ourselves.

To be clear, this is not some smug reminder that other people are dying too, so get over it. That is an all to typical response. Rather, this shattering of our normalcy should join us with those that have their normalcy shattered on a much more frequent basis. Or in other words, the abnormal horror visited on people like us, should open us up to the normal horror visited on those we don’t imagine as us.

Tragedy and Anger in Happy Valley

“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear

“This is one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State”
– Rodney Erickson, Interim President of Pennsylvania StateUniversity

I will not recount the details of what has occurred at Penn State over the past 47 years to lead to this point of ‘sadness’.* And I do not think it is an exaggeration to appeal to Shakespeare or the notion of tragedy to make sense of the fall of mighty men, the unravelling of moral pillars and the tearing of identities. This is not just about football or Penn State. If these events are isolated to either, then a narrative that allows us to create distance from the actors will cover the many lessons of this tragic drama.

A danger is to isolate victim and villain, innocence and guilt, and wounded and perpetrator to self-contained individuals. To be clear, the role of victim intensely belongs to the boys who suffered sexual abuse under the care of a senior football administrator. I do not want to reduce or take away from that. But the victimization does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles. Similarly the perpetration of the crimes can be isolated to an individual. But this also does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles, which expand to exhaustion and overlap with the expanding circles of victimization. In this area of overlap there is confusion, anger and frustration. Perhaps a lot of the students and wider Penn State community feel positioned between the overlapping waves of the expanding circles of victimization and perpetration – far removed from the either actions but affected by both.

From my observations, a bulk of the student body are experiencing deep confusion over these events, their place in them, who is to blame, and what can be done. Emotions for this institution, community, football and coach run deep. To see these sources of identify and selfhood scrutinized is extremely troubling.

As the seeds sown 47 years ago have revealed their bitter fruit this week, some students and alumni have turned their anger and confusion toward the messenger – the media. Viewing the media as the only participants in this drama standing to gain, students have directed uncontrolled emotion toward them. Culminating in a riot.

In response to the riot, the Penn State Facebook page requested students vacate the downtown area. However, a number of comments to the two messages (on the right), supported the students rioting and suggested the media presence justified, if not required, violent action. For example:

Adam: tell the media to vacate. not the students

Nicole: So glad they are making a point of attacking the media, what goes around comes around media!!!

Brian: Should have thought about that before handing the legend over to the mob media. Penn state gets what they asked for tonight.

Tarrie: What a shame that a brilliant career is ending over this. I can’t believe that this honorable man is as deeply involved in this as the media is making out. I’ve been a Penn State fan for as long as I can remember and I”m 52 years old. I think you should protest, protest and protest. Let your voices be heard loud and clear. 

Mardizone: show luv for JOE PA yall…shame on da media!!!!!! shame on PSU!!!!

David: Susan, the media is what caused this. The media is the one who villified Joe Paterno. The media is the reason his career was called to end. The media is the reason his legacy has been entirely destroyed. The media is entirely at fault.

Susan: My son has just been pepper sprayed trying to help a girl that tripped-thanks b of trustees and media.

Kvision: Joe Paterno did not deserve to be fired! All those that are protesting against him are victims of the media and miss information. This is what the media does because they have no morals either. They are about making the buck just like Penn State.

As is clear from these comments there is a lot of anger and confusion. While it is important that certain actions are taken quickly and decisively, it is also important to acknowledge that quick solutions and answers will not satisfy the need for deeper inquiry. Slow thought and careful consideration is crucial in order to learn from errors of the past. Some of us may be victims or perpetrators of these errors, and some of us may be an uncomfortable mixture of both. However, it is important that artificial stories are not grasped for as quick remedy to our discomfort. As the Bard notes, time has unfolded what plaited cunning hides, yet time should also be allowed for somber rumination, sensitive dialogue and ethical consideration.

*Most major US newspapers have adequate summaries – NY Times, USA Today, FOX News or Centre Daily Times