More on the difficulty of “preaching what you practice”

by Andrew Gelman on May 17, 2012 · 4 comments

in Politics Everywhere

A couple months ago, in discussing Charles Murray’s argument that America’s social leaders should “preach what they practice” (Murray argues that they—-we!—-tend to lead good lives of hard work and moderation but are all too tolerant of antisocial and unproductive behavior among the lower classes), I wrote:

Murray does not consider the case of Joe Paterno, but in many ways the Penn State football coach fits his story well. Paterno was said to live an exemplary personal and professional life, combining traditional morality with football success—-but, by his actions, he showed little concern about the morality of his players and coaches. At a professional level, Paterno rose higher and higher, and in his personal life he was a responsible adult. But he had an increasing disconnect with the real world, to the extent that horrible crimes were occurring nearby (in the physical and social senses) but he was completely insulated from the consequences for many years. Paterno’s story is symbolic of upper-income America: you can live an ordinary life in an ordinary house and still feel like a regular guy but still live in a bubble. . . .

Joe Paterno is an extreme example, but I think his story is relevant, to explain the difficulty of the “preach what you practice” guideline. My claim is that “preaching,” to make a difference, requires actions as well as words. While Paterno did not espouse a nonjudgmental stance on rape, assault, etc., in his actions he expressed a hands-off policy. I see no reason to think that Paterno believed these crimes committed by his coach and players were OK, he just didn’t seem to think it was his role to do anything about it. I don’t place myself above Paterno in any moral sense—-I certainly don’t monitor the after-hours activities of my own students and employees—-I just see it as an example of the social distance that Murray writes about, that an authority figure such as Paterno can feel it’s acceptable to be so isolated in this way.

In response, Murray wrote, “the Paterno case is utterly inapropos for illustrating my argument.”

One complication was that Paterno was a small-town icon and outspoken conservative Republican. Perhaps this was a bit too close to Murray’s ideal.

So here’s another example that I read about: Charles Hynes, a NYC district attorney who has been colluding with local orthodox Jewish religious leaders to allow child molesters to avoid prosecution. What this story has in common with the Paterno case is not just the crime but also active coverup, with accusers being attacked for reporting the crimes. From the outside, this is hard for me to understand—-Who’s out there protecting child abusers? Don’t any of these people have children of their own?—-but, yes, it seems like it happens for real, and it’s not just about Catholic priests.

Here’s Charles Hynes, a Democrat from Brooklyn, and he has the same problem that Joe Paterno’s colleagues had at Penn State: they went easy on child molesters, thus directly letting them abuse more kids.

What does this tell me? Not that Hynes and Paterno are eeeeeeeeeevil—-I have not idea how I would act in such a situation, and I don’t see it as my place to judge—-but rather that “preaching what you practice” isn’t free. It comes with a cost. The crew at Penn State had a squeaky-clean reputation to protect, and I suppose they talked themselves into believing that the molester in their midst would not offend again. The politicos at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office presumably had an elaborate chain of argument as to why political deals were necessary, the opposition is worse, etc etc. Sure, they could’ve prosecuted a bunch of child abusers but they would’ve had to pay politically.

Of course I think (based on what I’ve read in the papers) that, in all these cases, openness would’ve been the best policy, rather than shielding the criminals and letting them do more harm. My only point is that, evidently, taking this seemingly obvious step has some cost. In the context of Paterno’s and Hynes’s day-to-day lives, it was easier to do nothing.

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