the excuse of great achievements

I’ve been following news around Sandusky, the Penn State football coach who was recently busted for raping children, and the various officials who knew and covered it up because he was just so darned good at football.

Penn State students have rioted, overturning cars and smashing things. Not because Penn State quietly condoned this monstrous behavior in the name of football, but because Penn State has wised up and fired him. As is typical for police, they’re too busy going after peaceful protesters to be bothered about an actual riot. Free speech is for sports fans.

This is all an exceptionally disgusting statement about our culture, but what I am reminded of with this outpouring of support for Jerry Sandusky is the last two times I recall that rape became a major media event with the cases of Roman Polanski and Julian Assange, and how so many people were quick to jump to excuse what is a truly terrible crime on the grounds that these people have achieved amazing things.

Achieving amazing things is not a license to violate other people’s bodily autonomy. There is not some kind of system in place where you earn points for achievements and after you tip over into “amazing” you are allowed to rape people. Rape is not ever okay, no matter what other awesome things you have done.

No matter how many football games you win.

No matter how many brilliant movies you make.

No matter your contributions to open governance. And to hit this in particular, there is a terrible irony to working for a more open and accountable world while violating others’ autonomy in this manner.

Being human is not a binary experience. People are not “good” or “evil” with no middle ground, no squiggly line racing between extremes. It is possible for someone to achieve great things and also do things that are truly terrible, and this is a hard thing for the rest of us to deal with because it makes processing our relationships to these wonderful things that we love very difficult, and it makes our relationships with the people who do these things complex. Do I respect Julian Assange for working for open government, or do I hate him for serial date rape? Both. Do I admire Polanski’s films and feel terrible for his experience of having his partner murdered, or do I hate him for drugging and raping a junior high girl? Both. I don’t actually care about football, but the same principle holds – Jerry Sandusky was a great coach, but also raped children.

And this is where I differ from everyone who has defended these men from rape charges on the basis of their contributions in other areas: a person’s contributions to the arts, sports, or open governance are not relevant to whether they have also committed rape, and are not a defense. “I made something great” is not an answer to accusations of rape any more than it would be an answer to say “I am a faithful Catholic” or “I am a solid democrat” or “I like orange juice”. It is not relevant. It is a non sequitur. It has nothing to do with the accusations made.


4 Comments on “the excuse of great achievements”

  1. Mark Betnel says:

    I completely agree with you about achievement being a non sequitir, though I’d point out that in this case, it doesn’t seem that anyone is rioting in support of Sandusky (who retired 12 years ago) — they threw bricks through his window. They rioted in support of Paterno, who did report the allegations to his superiors, but did not follow up on it or ever contact the police himself.

    Personally, I think firing Paterno was appropriate because he should have done more, but the Penn State students are upset at what they feel is a university covering itself by sacrificing the only person who did _anything_ about it, rather than firing a whole mess of people who should have done even more — which is, I think, a slightly more understandable reason to get upset than supporting Sandusky would be, though obviously still not really defensible.

  2. redchuckproductions says:

    I’ve still never seen any Polanski films. As a film guy, I surely want to, but I find myself questioning whether watching his movies would somehow translate into supporting the bastard.

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