I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, so when I watched Happy Valley (a documentary about how the Penn State football community dealt with a child molestation scandal), it suddenly seemed like a perfect laboratory to observe how mainline identity politics works in its rawest form. After all, there is no right-wing or left-wing side in this struggle. The moral lines are clear: criminal assault against children is a more important issue than football. But watching how Penn State fans reacted to protect their community helped me recognize some standard rhetorical moves that mainline groups make when their identities are threatened. In this blog post I’ll lay out some of those strategies in hopes that we all can see them better when they appear in our politics.
This exercise worked particularly well for me because I know full well the power of sports tribalism. The longest-running emotional relationship in my life is the one I have with Duke basketball. That was formed through my participation in the interactive organism that is a Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, which is still one of the most powerful collective experiences of my life.
Sports affiliations, like all identity politics, are about pride and love. They also thrive on something that’s not quite hatred, though it can look and sound a lot like it. It’s perfectly ok for me to tell Carolina to go to hell (in my lifetime I have shouted many more obscenities at the North Carolina Tarheels than I have at any political group). There’s a ritualized antipathy that is simultaneously good-natured and truly heartfelt, and it operates within well-established historical norms. Those norms function much like the prescribed boundaries of the playing field where official rules try to protect the players from unfair injury. As a fan I take on the language of the sports participants: possessives (“my team,” “our season”) and martial verbs (“attacking” and “defending”), although my efforts have little to do with the outcomes (though I still mystically participate in that collective by waving off televised opponents’ free throws from my living room).
All is ok when sports remains within the boundaries of the magic circle. What happened in the Penn State case is that the ugliness of the real world intruded into the protected space of football. When that occurred, then it became clear that the identities formed through these ritualized activities had never entirely stayed within their apparent boundaries, that they bled into the hearts and minds of fans. And once “my team” is “attacked” (though those “attacks” are really “criticisms”), I defend my people regardless of the charges against them using whatever means I have.
For those who may not know or remember the history examined in Happy Valley, longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of minors during his time at Penn State, attracting enormous media attention. Everyone interviewed in the film admits that Sandusky was guilty, and they all condemn his actions. The thornier sticking point is how complicit legendary head coach Joe Paterno was.
When thousands of Penn State fans demonstrate on campus in support of “Joe Pa,” they physically attack reporters, overturning a television truck. Throughout the controversy, fans express considerable hostility toward the very presence of “the media.” In the less violent version of this hostility, they rail at the media for not achieving some impossible level of fairness: Why are they reporting on us? There’s a lot more corruption in football elsewhere!
The obvious reason that people were reporting on Penn State was the simple fact that there was evidence of wrongdoing. Reporters don’t survey the entire landscape, collect data from all parties, weigh the relative levels of transgression, and then report solely on the worst case. They work on the evidence that is available to them. By saying “there are worse places; go there,” that excuses you from paying attention to problems that you know. (This is similar to people who say that WalMart shouldn’t be boycotted because of its unfair business practices: “After all, I’m sure everyone does that.” Well, when you get the evidence about other businesses, I’ll listen. In the meantime, I’m avoiding doing business with the wrongdoer I know.) Having evidence of wrongdoing is enough to justify the need for investigation. If we assume that the worst wrongdoer should be dealt with first, then the present allegations get a pass.
In the name of “fairness,” these insider fans also seem to want a full accounting of the pros of Paterno’s career (the high graduation rate for Penn State players, for instance) to “balance” any new developments about criminal activity and possible coverups. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what “breaking news” journalism does. Other forms (opinion pieces, longer features, investigative journalism) can spend more time placing events into context, but “breaking news” obviously emphasizes what is new over what is well-established. The fans seek an impossible level of fairness, and when the press inevitably fails, when the message is not crafted exactly as the fans desire, then that allows the community to discount the charges as being “biased” or not “balanced.”
Of course, providing feedback for the press about their “fairness” is fair game. We should monitor the press, just as the press needs to vigilantly monitor the institutions of power for the good of the republic. But finding them inadequately “fair” is not an excuse to ignore the substance of the press’s (or anyone’s) claims, particularly since “fairness” is an impossible, infinite horizon. You can always demand that your treatment should be more fair, more balanced. Charges of unfairness don’t feel like personal defensiveness because they lay claim to an impersonal standard. But if you’re focusing on the messenger’s lack of fairness or balance rather than on the substantive claims they’re making, then you may be defending your identity/community more than you are listening to what people are saying.
Penn State fans rush to “Joe Pa’s” defense even when they couldn’t possibly know the details about what happened behind closed doors. They do so because Joe was a “good guy,” and the “good guy” defense is an emotionally important one within a community, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A significant part of Happy Valley involves an artist’s decisions about whether Joe Paterno should have a halo in a public mural he painted. There are very few of us who deserve halos, but communities tend to offer them to their leading figures. The understanding of Joe Pa that emerges in the documentary is one that almost everyone can agree on: Paterno did a lot of good in Penn State; he is also quoted as saying he should have done more about the sexual abuse he knew was happening. One can certainly still be a “good guy” in public actions and engage in ethically questionable conduct in private.
I use the term “good guy” intentionally, fully aware that we offer this defense quite often to men through what Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” (For more about this, listen to Scene on Radio’s terrific podcast on “Men,” particularly this episode.) As the podcast notes, we extend “good guy” protection much more freely to white guys than black men (and, I might note, more often to men with class/wealth/position than to lower class men. The nickname “Joe Pa,” by the way, is a lovely acknowledgment of paternalism). I am struck by how often Trump’s defense of individuals is a variation on “he’s a good guy; I can’t believe he’d do that.” The world isn’t a morally simple place that sorts people into obvious “good guys” and “bad hombres” as if they’re out of central casting. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and so we should all acknowledge that one’s public “good guy” persona may not be relevant in discussing their private or sexual behavior.
Once people do accept the criticisms of the community, there’s a tendency for the community to demand that we just move on. Now that this unpleasant incident is over, let’s get back to the important stuff: football. The “just move on” strategy allows the community to feel virtuous (after all, the wrongdoer has been punished) and then to shift the blame onto those who irrationally want to dwell on what happened. By my time clock, we’re ready to get past this. But other people may have a different clock, particularly those who were directly affected (such as the victims of abuse, who can’t move on as quickly as the community wants). Policing other people’s “timing” has been a great way for communities to protect themselves from criticism. “You need to wait; people aren’t ready for this yet.” “We need to move on; it’s not good for you to wallow in this stuff.” Somewhere between those two prescriptions is the elusive “right time,” which is almost as difficult to find as the right “balance” of criticism and contextualization. The community asserts its authority about when we should “move on” to a time when they no longer are being criticized, which is a paternalistic way to shut those criticisms down.
So when a community says “Other people are doing the same or worse!” or “You aren’t telling the full story! I don’t have to listen to this!” or “He’s a good guy. Let him alone!” or “We’ve already dealt with this. We should move on,” we should stop to consider what these statements are doing. Are these truly claims about “fairness” and poor “timing,” or are they attempts to shift the focus off my community? (After all, we seem to make these claims much more often about “our people” and tend to be much less concerned with fairness and poor timing with other groups) Recognizing these tactics can help us hear the identity defensiveness behind our pronouncements. Hopefully we can pause first and think about how such statements can simply be veiled versions of “Stop picking on me!”