David Brooks feels superior to you

FROM DAVID BROOKS’ New York Times article, Let’s All Feel Superior:

…a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption.

None of us? Not one? Really? Or are you just talking about yourself and the herd, David?

Because I don’t disagree that you and the herd are cowards.

IF I EVER have two seconds before a meteor hits me, and I want to tell my six-year-old boys what a man is, this is what I’ll say:

A man stands up.

If I misjudged the meteor and I have another thirty seconds or so, I explain that when I say “man,” it’s because of my personal associations with the word, not because women are excluded from the thought, and that because I have boys and need to address what they will do when they are men, I’m being specific with my language and we’re all male.

If it turns out it wasn’t a meteor, it was just a Nerf ball with orange streamers taped to it, I retrieve my glasses and return to my point:

Standing up is difficult. We’re trained since childhood to be good, be nice, be respectful of authority, do what all the other children are doing, strangle our natures for the good of the collective and the sanity of the teacher. Sheep training begins on day one of preschool. Sit still, don’t speak without raising your hand, don’t yell, don’t hit, don’t object, don’t allow yourself to be triggered when your sense of right and wrong is activated. Never take responsibility for halting an injustice. Leave the scene, find a teacher, and assume authority knows better than you do. Be a social animal. Go along to get along.

Here’s what I guess nobody ever taught you, David Brooks: To know you’re going to stand up, you have to decide what you’re going to do in advance when you walk around that corner and find that child being abused, because that’s the very moment when your herd mentality and your subordination to authority and fear of physical harm are going to kick in. Yeah, you got that much right in your article: You are going to feel those pressures and fears, your adrenaline is going to go crazy, and your moral blinders are going to slam shut.

But none of those—not one—is what you’re going to do next.

So what are you going to do next? Do you know? Apparently the answer is yes: You spent a whole Times article forgiving yourself, in advance, for doing nothing.

But you don’t speak for the grownups, child.

I DON’T THINK you even speak for the children. I think you speak for the Times writing you a check to get people mad.

BUT LET’S SAY I’m wrong, and you write things you really believe, with no consideration for the number of comments and page hits a little button-pushing gets you.

You invoked the Holocaust: I invoke Oskar Schindler.

You invoked Rwanda: I invoke Gisimba, Wilkens, and an unknown army major.

You invoke you: I invoke me.

The main difference between us, I imagine, is that I know who I can stand to be afterwards. I don’t know whether I’m strong enough to do it when an army is approaching—I haven’t been tested, hope not to be, and frankly doubt I’m up to that—but I know what I’ll do if I see a child being raped.

You say you don’t?

I accept that.

So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.

THIS IS TRUE and incontrovertible.

It also doesn’t support your premise. It’s about groups. It has little bearing on one person encountering one person committing an atrocity on one person.

May I, and those who believe as I do, be given the opportunity to prove ourselves. Because it will mean that when someone needs help, we—not you and the herd—are there.

For some of us, it’s a test we will feel the need to rise to.

Some of us won’t.

Some of us will.



Filed under Being a grownup, Bravery, Community, Favorite, Kids, Parenting, Whatever

11 responses to “David Brooks feels superior to you

  1. Cindy G

    I’m sorry, Keith. I think you missed the point of Brooks’ essay – which was that way too many people are feeling smug in their denunciation of the bad people in the Penn State scandal, when they couldn’t cough up the backbone to do anything about it if they had been in the shoes of the lower level people. He wasn’t letting them off the hook, he was telling them to look at what they would actually do themselves.
    I live in “Penn State Country”, so I am inundated with coverage on this, and because I represent abused and neglected kids, I follow it even more. Because I know way too well about how it’s always “a surprise”, “it couldn’t happen”, “I’d have known”, etc. The only good thing about this whole toxic morass is that “it can’t happen here” has been made a very visible lie, instead of an easily dismissible one.

    • Cindy, I just re-read it, and was getting myself ready to say I made a mistake–but I don’t think I did. This op-ed is just more smugness on top of what already exists.

      I don’t think the passages I quoted are out-of-context cherry-picking. They do represent the point of the piece. At the end, he makes some comments about needing to look at ourselves, but that’s after he’s already indulged in some pretty odious stuff.

    • Roddy Reta

      Totally agree with you Cindy. Well said.

      • I’d have no issue if he was saying, “Look at this human flaw and see how it played into the problem.”

        I’d also have no issue if he was saying, “There are a lot of people pointing fingers who wouldn’t have done any better.”

        But he’s not saying those things. He’s saying “No one can know what they’d do.”

        That is not a true statement. It’s a smug and superior one, but it’s not a true one.

  2. Tara Lee

    I think much of what Brooks had to say was true in terms of the Bystander Effect (and larger scale atrocities – there is both a sense of personal powerless and the sense that someone else will step up). HOWEVER, and this is the key here, this situation was so IN YOUR FACE and the solution so clear cut that I don’t see how any other solution could have been contemplated. And to give credibility to my stance, many years ago in the Air Force a younger and dear friend of David’s and mine confided in us that he was a pedophile (why he confided we are unsure to this day). He had been spending considerable time with young men and had already been caught in a very compromising situation. We spent a sleepless night and contacted the military police the next day. Soon after we received a grateful call from a colonel’s family whose sons he had been “grooming.” It was very hard to turn in a friend. But you KNOW what you have to do.

  3. I’ll have to read Brooks’ story to get the gist of it, but there’s a huge difference between seeing something in a crowd and not doing something, and walking into the showers and seeing a guy bugger a boy and walking away.

    And even if Brooks might be right, then do we want to leave it like this? Do we want to express that most people won’t do anything, and that’s all right?

    I don’t think so. Maybe it’s being hypocritical to say something publicly, but where can the boundaries be drawn between moral and immoral acts? They have to be established publicly.

    Otherwise, the line will be drawn at, “Eh, what are you going to do?” and is that where we want it?

    • Kathleen

      Absolutely, Bill. And I think that is what Keith is saying. He is saying he is not going to be a bystander because he has made the decision ahead of time not to be one. It takes that level of thought and determination BEFORE you see someone in need of help. Because we don’t want the bystander effect to influence us. We want to be better than that.

      The other thing: Even if you witness something terrible as part of a crowd, wouldn’t you want to be the person who stood up and said to the crowd, “This is wrong! We have to do something!” Otherwise, there is a chance that the crowd will stand there and let someone be brutalized. We have to counteract the herd effect.

  4. Right on, Keith. You nailed it. McQueary is scum for not stepping in and saving the child. Paterno is scum for covering it up to preserve the image of his precious fucking football program. The Penn State top dogs are scum for telling Sandusky simply to refrain from bringing children onto the campus (in other words, we know what you’re up to, Jerry. Just try to do it somewhere else, OK? We’ve got a football program to protect.).

    At no time did Paterno or any of the other Penn State scum, OR BROOKS for that matter, concern themselves with the terrible trauma those children endured at the hands of that twisted fucking savage pervert Sandusky.

    A real man would’ve put those kids’ interests first. A real man would’ve rushed into that shower and decked Sandusky on the spot. Maybe pounded his head onto the floor a few times for good measure, then called an ambulance for the child.

  5. Fuckin’ A. Good one, Keith.

  6. Robin

    Hey Keith,

    I am very late for this discussion. I agree with you; his thesis is all over the place. He cites multiple sources to back up his assertion that current human nature is akin to willful blindness. His portrayal of Puritism as the example of correct moral standards is inaccurate. That and his subsequent discussion frankly undermine & disprove his thesis

    He upholds the Puritans (really?) as the epitome of moral standards. Some of the Puritan tenets he cites (e.g. original sin) are Catholic, not Puritan.

    Puritans were obsessed with morality and rooting out what they perceived as Evil. Collectively they supported & participated in the Salem Witch trials (see Cotton Mather), exorcism, & death for adultery. Hmm, not sure we should deify them as a moral compass.

    As for the individual wonderfulness – what is he talking about? His characterization is insulting to the majority of society. Many people were taught in their formative years & beyond by parents, family, teachers, spiritual figures, mentors & other children. Why are their so many student led anti-bullying groups in primary schools, student led protests against inappropriate targeting of LGBTQ students, people protesting, offering their support individually, materially & finacially every day.

    People perform random kindness & stand up to evil, immoral acts every day. But they don’t publish that in media. Individuals throughout the chain of command who know about acts of violence & abuse & willingly bury it are giving their tacit approval. They deserve to bbe fired & jail time. They are equally responsible & accountable as Assist.

    Many people stand up & are punished. McQuery (sp) lost his job, his career and his marriage. He lives with his parents, but he did the right thing.

    Brooks attempt to chastise & rationalize bystander behavior rings hollow. His flawed thesis is a personal opinion wrapped in citations rather than a serious piece of journalism. Hope it was on the Op-Ed pages.

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