“Moral Monstrosity”

Penn State’s president and their legendary football coach were removed from office yesterday by the Board of Regents. We mentioned the scandal as the first words of it hit the national media. Now we know more, and I think Jeffry Toobin of CNN gets it just right: See the video here.

If the clip gets on youtube later, we’ll post it. If you find it there, please let us know.

I’m embarrassed to say that in the first post I was thinking in terms of students and faculty harrassed at universities. The child sexual abuse is just horrible, and I hope I don’t detract from that again by noting the following: Denials and cover-ups happen a lot in universities and the practices might be quite different if universities regularly fired at least those who practice indecent assault and extreme retaliation, and those who cover it up. For an incident, do look at the last link in the earlier FP post linked to above.

20 thoughts on ““Moral Monstrosity”

  1. Clicking on the link led me to a video about the Greek bailout.

    However, is it really a case of “moral monstrosity”?

    Pedophiles are sad and sick beings who should be locked up and treated if that is possible, but a moral monster seems to me to be someone who chooses to do evil and I doubt that anyone chooses to be a pedophile.

    As for those who should have called the police and who didn’t, I would not put them in the category of moral monsters either.

    Labeling people as “moral monsters” foments a lynch mob climate, which impedes rational discussion about how to deal with pedophiles.

  2. SW: i am really not so clear. I think “moral monsters” might be appropriate for those ignoring or discounting the injuries inflicted. I think that phrase would apply quite clearly if the children were physically maimed, and I don’t see letting them off because the maiming was not very visible.

  3. Morality seems to involve choice, and as I said, pedophiles don’t choose to be who or what they are.

    Those who cover up pedophilia choose to do so, insofar as anyone chooses anything.

    Those who don’t see what they see in the case of pedophilia probably don’t choose to not see what they see, although Sartre would say that they do.

    What does “moral monstrosity” mean?

    I would not use the term myself, but it would seem to refer to someone who, like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, proclaims: “evil, be thou my good”, that is, who intentionally chooses evil.

    If that is the case, I doubt that either the pedophiles or those who cover up pedophilia or those who don’t see what they see in the case of pedophilia are moral monsters.

    Outside of Milton’s poetry or Shakespeare (Iago, for example), there are few moral monsters. I don’t deny that they exist, but most people are either led to do evil by forces that they do not control (pedophiles) or justify their conduct by a incredible list of rationalizations and acts of self-deception.

    Given that and given the horrors of self-righteous lynch mob psychology/behavior, in my opinion, terms like “moral monstrosity” should be avoided if possible.

  4. SW, you say: “but a moral monster seems to me to be someone who chooses to do evil and I doubt that anyone chooses to be a pedophile.” But this involves an equivocation when you then conclude that child molesters are not moral monsters.

    Consider: not all pedophiles (people who are sexually aroused by children) sexually molest children. Child molesters are not mere pedophiles, they are pedophiles who have chosen to do evil (even if they didn’t choose to have the urge to do evil) and so should count as a moral monster, under your ruberic. This, even if we accept that no one chooses to be a pedophile.

  5. I’m not even sure where to begin on this issue. First, thanks to Anne for having the courage to point out the fact that denials and cover-ups of extreme sexual harassment and assault occur at a lot of universities. Statistics obviously aren’t available, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s more common than even I suspect. I have first-hand knowledge of two cover-ups, both of which involved alleged sexual assault, at two different universities, both top-tier research universities. In one case the university botched the investigation and wound up paying the faculty member for the remainder of his contract, despite the fact that he admitted to having intercourse with the student, which was a clear violation of the university policy. The student, of course, got nothing. In the second case the student was silenced by the department chair, who told her that to press charges would be to commit “academic suicide.” She got an abortion, and left academia.

    Now, like Anne and Nemo and millions of others, I find the molestation of young boys and teens shocking and sad. But here’s the thing: I find the molestation — and, yes, I am calling it *molestation* deliberately — of undergraduate students by faculty equally horrific. While many of the undergraduate students I teach are mature young adults, many are still teens with respect to actual age and/or degree of experience and emotional sophistication. Contrary to what some of my colleagues seem to think, college students do not magically become adults when they matriculate or turn 18. Many college students have little or no sexual experience, and are no more mature than their high school counterparts when it comes to dealing with the complexities of relationships, particularly unwanted relationships with older faculty who are in a position of power. When a faculty member 30 or 40 years older than the student leverages his seniority to make sexual advances on a student, the confusion and discomfort experienced by the student is no less severe and no less profound than the emotions described by the Grand Jury in the indictment (see Nemo’s link above). I am no psychologist, but I would bet that the damage to the student’s psyche is very similar, with perhaps one significant difference: whereas the child might wonder whether he/she did something wrong — something to bring on the unwanted attention, something to deserve the mistreatment — the student is left with not only this question, but also the question of the connection (or lack thereof) between the quality of his/her work, the grade received, and the sexual advances.

    So: moral monstrosity, or not? C’mon, folks! Is this really the question we should be debating, when universities continue to cover up the harassment and assault of undergraduates at their institutions?

  6. Invisible, Why “equally horrific”? In the Penn State case one of the 8 alleged victims is a 10 year old boy was seen being anally raped in a locker room shower by an authority figure. I have first hand knowledge of some very serious cases of sexual harassment at the college level, but a 10 year old is helpless in a way that a college student is not. At the most basic level, the 10 year old can’t get away — doesn’t know who to call, can’t drive, doesn’t even understand the sex acts he’s being compelled to engage in. Why (on earth) compare abuse of adults to the abuse of children? They’re both terrible, but may we not preserve our special sensitivity to the sexual abuse of children?

  7. Jean, I feel that the college student who has been sexually assaulted by an authority figure is equally helpless. They often *don’t* know who to call, especially at universities with inadequate awareness/training programs and/or lack of anonymous help lines staffed by professionals. They don’t know who to turn to or who to trust, and are often inexplicably ashamed and (correctly) worried that reporting the act will lead to further trauma and inappropriate handling of the case, despite the fact that sexual assault is a criminal act. Although they might be able to “drive”, they can’t get away, particularly in cases in which the faculty member is an instructor or adviser in the department in their major field. The emotional chaos of trying to comprehend why one has been compelled to engage in a repugnant sex act with someone old enough to be one’s father engenders a complex and multi-layered confusion, one aspect of which is a sense of helplessness.

    And — unlike the 10 year old child — the college student will be questioned about whether she had any amorous feelings for the faculty member, asked whether she was dressed provocatively, and even told that the faculty member in question might have “loved” her.

  8. Invisible:

    But in one case there is a literal sexual assault, violent, forcible rape.

    In the other, there is an abuse of power, seduction through lying and deception, but neither rape nor even statutory rape.

  9. Ah, I see the source of the misunderstanding now. What I’m talking about (based on the first-hand experience of the two faculty/student cases) is first-degree sexual assault. Rape. As I said, in the one case the faculty member was paid a six figure sum to go away quietly (with a confidentiality clause) because the university mis-handled the investigation. In the other, the student was advised to keep quiet because the faculty member in question was universally respected as a “nice guy”.

  10. Invisible, Helplessness comes in degrees. I think however much powerlessness there is in college women (yes, I agree–a lot) there is more in children. I’ll leave it at that, since it doesn’t seem like we’re going to convince each other.

  11. A discussion last night reminded me that assaults followed by cover-ups occur in a number of structured male-dominated institutions. Perhaps they do also in the few structured female dominated communities, but academia, the Church and the military all have a very bad reputation for this. If Jean K is right, then the Church is by far the worse, I should think, but academia is more our terrain.

    I do think it is right to point out that the cover up at Penn State is something a lot of people are quite practiced at in universities. This would surely be an appropriate object of investigation on a national scale.

  12. Anne,

    Regarding sexual assaults/misconduct in educational institutions (at least at the primary and secondary levels), the work of Charol Shakeshaft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charol_Shakeshaft) – reputed, in my understanding, to be the the leading US researcher in the field – is instructive here. If it is anything to go by, the problems (both in terms of assaults and in terms of subsequent cover ups) is many times worse in educational institutions than it ever was in the Church.

  13. Nemo, I meant that if JK is right, and it is so much worse to molest children than to rape students, faculty, the church is worse. Still, at some point numbers should count. I have no idea, however. If Jean is right, are 10 molested children the equivalent of a hundred raped students?


    Perhaps a quantitative comparison is just impossible, and we should think really just of individual perpetrators. I suspect, though, that people who have thought about war crimes, etc, have nuanced positions about comparisons.

  14. The comparisons are pretty grotesque! I certainly agree that academia is our terrain, not the church, and most of what goes on in academia affects adult female students, not children. So it’s fair to make this a time of extra thought about faculty harassment and assault of female students, codes of silence, covering up the malfeasance of colleagues, etc. I’ve actually been thinking about things of that sort since the Penn State thing came to light. But still … to be a rapist of children is to be a special kind of monster, I think. They are more helpless, by just about any measure.

  15. Beyond mere covering-up is the behavior of all the demonstrators (mostly undergrads) who protested the firing of “JoePa” with considerable force (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/11/sports/ncaafootball/penn-state-students-in-clashes-after-joe-paterno-is-ousted.html?_r=2&hp).

    For perspective: if a crowd had acted like that at Zucotti Park, the whole OWS movement would have been discredited. We’re not dealing here with male-dominated university or military or church — we’re dealing with the Sacred Realm of Sport. A whole different ball-game, so to speak.

  16. @SW,

    Are Moral Monsters by your definition really that rare? I’ve totally been in situations where I had two choices, I knew one of them was good and the other was evil, I further knew that for pragmatic reasons good was the better choice, but I still deliberately chose evil, because evil itself was more appealing than good. Am I just particularly sociopathic? I thought a lot of people agreed that Milton’s Satan is more appealing than the alternative?

  17. Carl:

    I may have lived a sheltered life, but most people whom I’ve know, including myself, tend to rationalize our evils or to justify them in the name of a supposed other good: e.g. , torture is carried out in Guantánamo in the name of fighting terrorism.

    I have known a few individuals who have consistently harmed and deceived others and seem not only to derive benefits from it (money, for example), but also to enjoy it.

    Far from finding them appealing or attractive, I avoid their company.

    Now, evil people may at times be more interesting (although not more appealing)than good ones. (I’m speaking for myself of course.)

    I would prefer to read a biography of Bernard Madoff than one of Peter Singer. Madoff is more interesting…..at a distance.

    However, I would prefer to live in a nation governed by Peter Singer, to share a flat with Singer or to get to know Singer.

    Why is evil more interesting, if not more appealing or attractive? I don’t know. What’s your take?

  18. I don’t think evil is always or even usually more attractive, just sometimes. The case I have in mind in particular is when I was young and mad at my brother (I can’t even remember what about), so I tore up part of his beloved diary. I certainly knew there was no greater good to be achieved by destroying it. I was just overcome by anger and wanted to do something to hurt him as deeply as I could before I came to my senses and stopped being angry at him. Why? I have no idea. But at the time, I wanted to be a bad person and think of myself as a bad person, at least while I was still in my state of rage. I tend to think these moments when evil is more attractive than good are rare but not rare enough. What can be done to prevent them? Probably better awareness of emotions, self-control, etc.

  19. Carl:

    Moments when a child or a youth wants to be bad or evil (I’ll not distinguish between the two) are common and part of a young person’s process of forming an identity. Even Saint Augustine stole the pears.

    If you’re interesting in a fascinating account of how a child, labeled “evil” by adults, decides to become or be evil, I suggest reading Sartre’s “Saint Genet”, a bit wordy, but an excellent analysis of the philosophical difficulties of “being evil”.

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