More on the difficulty of “preaching what you practice”

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.

4 Responses to More on the difficulty of “preaching what you practice”

  1. RobC May 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    That having character and acting ethically have costs seems both unexceptionable and depressingly obvious. Perhaps more to the point, Murray’s advice that social leaders should be less tolerant of antisocial and unproductive behavior among what Professor Gelman refers to as “the lower classes” also has costs. If you criticize the behavior of people, you will open yourself to accusations of elitism, racism, intolerance of multicultural norms, priggishness and/or hypocrisy. Whether true or not, such charges may adversely affect both your social life and your professional advancement. Anyone who’s inclined to disparage births out of wedlock or lack of ambition or spending beyond one’s means or other regrettable life choices should do so with appreciation of the costs.

    • Andrew Gelman May 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm #


      Exactly. It appears that professional advancement was a factor motivating both Paterno and Hynes to look away from child abuse. From the outside, “preaching what you practice” can sound easy, but these cases indicate some of the difficulties that arise in cases as different as a small-town moralist and a Brooklyn pol.

  2. Brett May 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Hynes wasn’t really colluding, he was just not releasing the names of those facing trial for sexually molesting children. He had a pretty straightforward argument for it, too – every time he released the name of a perpetrator, the whole community doubled down against the victim, and the cases against the perpetrators would fall apart.

    • Andrew Gelman May 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm #


      I don’t know anything beyond what was in the paper, but the accusation was more than just that Hynes didn’t release names. They also have stories of his office going easy on the prosecution of two serial offenders, one of whom had a lawyer who was married to someone who worked in Hynes’s office.

      That’s politics for ya. In some ways I’m less surprised by the behavior of the D.A. than by the community leaders. I’d think they wouldn’t want child molesters in their midst. I have a similar puzzlement about the Catholic bishops and the Penn State officials: I’d think they’d be especially angry at the perpetrators for taking advantage of their trust. But that just reveals my lack of understanding of these situations. I can see why someone like Hynes would play the game; I expect he justifies it to himself by thinking of the greater good he’s doing. But it’s hard for me to understand those people who take an active role to shield the perpetrators.