No social group is immune from the effects of Groupthink. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. The people at Penn State have university degrees, and yet, they stood by while they knew that evil was in their midst. Social commentator David Brooks offers an insightful explanation that makes Groupthink look rational:
“I don’t think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, ‘If it feels all right for you, it’s probably OK.’ And so that waters everything down.”
About the time Jerry Sandusky was molested young boys at Penn State and in his home, there was an article written that caught my attention. While most people are shocked that intelligent people can stand by while they witness evil taking place right before their eyes, Kay Haugaard is not.
Kay Haugaard has taught creative writing since 1970. As with most of her classes, students read and discuss Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Jackson’s lottery isn’t about winning millions of dollars by picking the right series of numbers; it’s about human sacrifice that a small town accepts and takes part in with no questions asked. As the years of teaching this story have passed, Haugaard began to see a change in the moral perceptions of her students. Their views on right and wrong had been dulled by the rhetoric of moral neutrality, “the danger of just ‘going along’ with something habitually, without examining its rationale and value.”1 Haugaard’s closing comments are chilling:
No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.
I wound up the discussion. “Frankly, I feel it’s clear that the author was pointing out the dangers of being totally accepting followers, too cowardly to rebel against obvious cruelties and injustices.” I was shaken, and I thought that the author, whose story had shocked so many, would have been shaken as well.
The class finally ended. It was a warm night when I walked to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.2
We’ve become a nation of moral bystanders. Deep down the majority of Americans know certain behaviors are wrong, but they’ve been cajoled into believing that nothing can be said in objection to the new amoral climate. If we do react, we are labeled “intolerant” and “insensitive” to different “lifestyle choices.” Christians are told that they are not being “loving” when they enter an opposing opinion on moral questions.
The change in moral perceptions and attitudes has been stunning. “After the horrendous crime against the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, a young Yale student has this observation: ‘Absent was a general outcry of indignation . . . [M]y generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place.’”3
Where are young people getting this type of thinking? At schools like Penn State. Parents send their children off to the big-name university for the sake of prestige and they come back as moral midgets, and they wonder why. Of course, it doesn’t happen to every child, but it happens to enough of them that we are beginning to see the effects of a moral backlash.
There was the attention-grabbing episode of Glee where two teenage boys “consummate” their “love” for one another by a sexual romp in the sack. Even a writer who does not object to homosexuality had problems with the episode:
Gay, straight, lesbian, or bi, when did it become appropriate for teens to have sex with each other on prime time TV? Is this really the message that we want to send to our kids? . . .
Teenage sex leads to depression and other crappy stuff. Why is Hollywood trying to romanticize teenage relationships? Yeah, two couples (one gay, one straight) on the show gave themselves to one another, but will they be together in ten years?
Gay or straight, Hollywood should not be romanticizing sex amongst teenagers.
Young people are being told that sex before marriage is OK – any kind and with anybody. They’re being told that marriage needs to be redefined. What moral compass does a teenager have today? How does he reject the advances of someone like Jerry Sandusky? “I mean, he’s a football coach. He’s married. He’s doing this to us at Penn State University in the hallowed locker rooms of the Nittany Lions. Some of the employees know about it. The school has ‘gay and lesbian studies’ classes. What could be wrong with it? Yes, I’m uncomfortable and feel ashamed, but that’s only because I’ve believed the stereotypical propaganda about homosexuality.”
- Kay Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” Unriddling Our Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, ed. Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 138. [↩]
- Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” 141. [↩]
- Peter Jones, Capturing the Pagan Mind: Paul’s Blueprint for Thinking and Living in the New Global Culture (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 50. [↩]