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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From Ripples to Tsunamis


I am angry. I am angry that actions of one person, and the inaction of many, have rippled out to the lives of so many people who have nothing to do with the action or inaction.  I’m talking about Penn State.  Unfortunately, I could make the same statement about any number of news items. The way the Catholic Church has handled cases of sexual abuse would be another prime example of actions followed by inaction rippling into a tsunami’s worth of damage. But I’ll stick to Penn State for now.

A couple days ago the NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State:  $60 million in fines, vacating all the football team’s wins since 1998, not allowing the football team to play in bowl games for four years, to name a few. NPR had a segment on people’s reactions to the sanctions.  Some people felt the sanctions were justified and appropriate. Others thought they were overly harsh, because so many people who were not involved in the scandal (though scandal seems too kind a word) will be affected. 

Here’s the thing we have to remember: our actions usually affect more than the people immediately involved in them, whether we mean for them to or not. There's a ripple effect.  To think that a person can act in isolation in today's world is simply naive.  We could talk about any action, but let's talk about Sandusky.  Let’s say he only sexually abused one boy.  At first glance, there were only two people affected: abuser and abused.  Sandusky was affected because, having not been immediately found out, he learned the lesson that he could do it again.  The abused learned - maybe to be silent, maybe to mistrust – I’m not sure what, but what happened to him certainly affected all his relationships after the abuse.  People don’t walk away from sexual abuse unscathed.   Effects of one case of abuse already rippled out…

Unfortunately, Sandusky didn’t stop after abusing one boy.  He continued to abuse; some people found out.  Those people did nothing. Inaction acted as permission. The ripples turned into waves…

For a more benign example of the effects of inaction, the classroom comes to mind.  Students talk in class; the teacher allows it.  Kids learn that talking in class is acceptable.  Once they learn that, they continue to push the limits to see what else they can get away with.  The stakes for them seem low enough to take some chances. Classroom behavior spirals downward.   

I am also reminded of an example from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I don’t have the book, so I apologize that the details are a little fuzzy.  Anyway, the example was about subway trains in, I think, New York City.  Crime in the subways was getting to be a big problem.  The strategy: clean all the graffiti off the subway cars. Then every time new graffiti went up, it was cleaned off immediately. 

At first it seems like a ridiculous plan.  Then I think back to the classroom examples and I see its wisdom.  If the little stuff, like talking in class, isn’t allowed, the big stuff definitely isn’t going to fly. The classroom where talking isn’t allowed is probably a pretty orderly one. With the subway example, if something as small as graffiti wasn’t tolerated, if it was immediately addressed, then pickpockets and muggings didn’t stand a chance of going unpunished.  As it turns out, when graffiti was addressed, other subway crime rates went down significantly.  Subway riders could relax a little more during their commutes because those in charge upped the ante on crime.  For potential criminals, it didn’t make sense to commit a crime in the subway anymore.  The odds of negative consequences became too high. 

Every time Sandusky got away with abusing someone, it must have seemed that the stakes got lower or at least that they didn’t go up for him. If he could get away with it once, why not try a second, third, fourth, tenth time?  However, every time he got away with it, the stakes actually went up, not down.  Ripples.  Every time someone found out about the abuse and did nothing, the stakes went up. Ripples growing into bigger and bigger waves. 

The ripples-turned-waves eventually reached tsunami strength and crashed into the Penn State community, wreaking havoc on it.  I think it’s safe to say that those waves reached far beyond Penn State. The fact that I learned about it while I was in Palestine shows that the waves travelled pretty far.  Even now, those waves have the force to knock the wind out of people, to push them down.

I believe that the NCAA sanctions were appropriate and on par with the level of destruction done by one person’s actions and many people’s inaction.  I hate that business owners around the Penn State stadium may suffer because of lost revenue.  I hate that Penn State football players from 1998 to now have officially lost their wins.  I hate that I even have occasion to write about this. 

But that’s what happens when actions, bad actions, are overlooked and ignored.  The problem grows.  It festers, gets infected, and spreads. It’s becomes a tsunami wave that destroys before it levels back out into a calm sea.

My hope is that the Sandusky/Penn State case gives us, myself included, pause, when we first see a problem.  I hope that we will think more carefully about our actions - or inactions - before we carry them out.  I’m not going to go into my own history, but I could give some example of small problems in my life turning into big ones, of problems swelling and crashing down onto others, because I ignored them. I hope that recognizing those times will help me to be more proactive, to choose action over inaction, to do something when I notice the smallest ripples.  I don’t want anyone knocked over by the waves those ripples could become.  

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