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Last week was the start of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State defensive coach accused of sexually assaulting ten boys over his career. In response to the testimonies, Maureen Dowd has penned an incendiary NYT op-ed called ‘Moral Dystopia’, angrily asking the same question many of us did when the Sandusky scandal came to light:

How could so many fine citizens of this college town ignore the obvious and protect a predator instead of protecting children going through the ultimate trauma: getting raped by a local celebrity offering to be their dream father figure?

Dowd responds that the reason so many were bystanders to Sandusky’s crimes is that our materialism, online narcissism and cynicism with authority have put morality into jeopardy. Doing the ‘right’ thing is no longer an imperative, and perhaps has become optional as society recognises morality must change according to circumstances.

This, unfortunately, is an incredibly flawed argument that gravely misunderstands the complexities of intervention and whistle-blowing, particularly in relation to sexual violence and broader human rights violations. Dowd, like many others, have been particularly shocked by Michael McQueary, Sandusky’s graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback, who actually witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower and did nothing to stop it.

“I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this,” the 37-year-old McQueary said. “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.”

Now in the harsh spotlight of the media and courtrooms and hindsight, McQueary’s words tremble with their flimsiness. How could he have not physically intervened to stop a boy being raped when it was within his power to do so?

Because these are the rationalizations that rape and other types of violence hinges on. Inaction–be it from fear, not knowing what to do, or denial–is inherent to impunity.

The real answer is ugly. The truth is that it is that many of us could be like McQueary and permit the rape of a young boy within earshot by doing nothing. It is, actually, sickeningly easy to see something wrong and do jack shit about it.

This does not mean we are not morally culpable in these situations. But the assumption that human nature is to intervene is problematic. In fact in most contexts the assumption should be, that left to their own devices, people will not act. This has nothing to do with individual morality, but the psychological processes and social institutions that enable structural and systematic violations to occur.

Yet, interestingly, intervention can be instilled as more of a norm—evidence of which is also embedded in the Sandusky case. In response to Dowd’s critiques, Amy Davidson contends, “The narrative of the past few years seems less about ‘sinking into moral dystopia’ than about the draining away of a swamp that hid bad behavior.”

And although Dowd fixates on narcissism and cynicism with authority as contributing to our current moral ‘dystopia’, Davidson quite rightly points out that these same phenomenon have also been responsible for getting justice for Sandusky’s victims:

Victim 1, who is now just eighteen, had a sense that he could put his loneliness to the test by turning on a computer, and that he might learn, there, that he wasn’t isolated after all. He also seems to have had a sense—in the way that young people in any number of countries have—that even a powerful person can be challenged or exposed online.

Davidson also notes that when the indictments came down, it was through alumni Facebook groups and social media that everyday citizens were able to put unrelenting pressure on Penn State’s board. She even offers, what if McQueary’s “culture-honed instinct had been to at least take an iPhone out of his pocket, and snap a picture” to intervene?

I don’t believe, as Davidson queries, that social media alone would have stopped Sandusky. But she is right that there is something amazing and powerful about how accountability is becoming increasingly wired into culture.

And I just don’t see that as dystopic.

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