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joe paterno and the sociological relevance of scandal

Joe Paterno is back in the news.  It looks bad.

The whole thing, of course, is disgusting and terrible and just incredible sad.

If there is a charitable way to understand Joe Paterno, I think it is via the Catholic understanding of “scandal,” which is not actually only about something bad and embarrassing happening, but the fear that such bad and embarrassing things might cause people to lose their faith.  For example, while many Catholic Bishops covered up sexual abuse of children for purely self-interested reasons, I imagine it’s at least possible that some wore worried about the faith of their followers being shattered by the revelations (which in some cases turned out to be well-founded fears).  To be absolutely clear: the fear of scandal is a stupid reason to hide things from the public, and it is morally stupefying that it could be used to justify not bringing child rapists to justice, or even more shocking, moving them to places where they could cause more harm.  But the fear of a scandal a real moral justification and perhaps even motivation that real people have, and, as such, it’s sociologically relevant in a way that I think is often ignored.

There’s a way in which college football can take on the trappings of a religion, and certainly for someone as centrally within that religion as Paterno, it makes sense that he might have known things but not revealed them to have protected not just his reputation but, in fact, the “faith” of so many. That’s what makes the concept of scandal so interesting: it is actually not just about people protecting their own skin, but also about protecting the beliefs of others. It’s a theme explored in comic books and literature all the time: the good guy who turned out to be bad, but we must not let the public know.

This, I think, is yet another example of how religion is not so different from plain old social life itself.  There’s a way of framing that idea I don’t like, which is a kind of Paul Tillich “ultimate concern” way of thinking that all of life is just religion.  Yet there’s another way of saying, look, religion is as much a part of social life as anything else, so it makes sense that stuff that shows up in religion could be useful to explain stuff that’s out of religion. If it worked for Durkheim (taboo, sacred/profane) and Weber (value spheres, charismatic authority), then it can still work today.  It’s one of my ongoing goals to think of religion as a site through which to develop broader social theory and through which to export concepts, rather than as a category that must be studied on its own and can only be compared to other religions.

Written by jeffguhin

July 14, 2016 at 7:45 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Ari Adut’s book on the subject is the definitive analysis: https://amzn.com/0521720400. He even goes into the religious etymology of “scandal,” with both Buddhist and Jewish origins.

    Liked by 1 person

    Chris Pieper

    July 14, 2016 at 8:13 pm

  2. I second what Chris says and would elaborate on it.

    Jeff, you say that “To be absolutely clear: the fear of scandal is a stupid reason to hide things from the public, and it is morally stupefying that it could be used to justify not bringing child rapists to justice, or even more shocking, moving them to places where they could cause more harm.” While I am in full agreement that it is morally wrong to hide these things from the public, I’d argue that the fear of scandal is exactly the (good) reason to hide things from the public. Ari Adut’s 2005 AJS paper lays this out more clearly, where Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality (big taboo back in British society back then) was known by individuals but where his homosexuality was not publicly or commonly known, so Wilde didn’t have to face any public trial (that often follows scandals; e.g., Lewinsky scandal; from the more popular media, Jon Ronson has a book on public shaming). But once Wilde’s homosexuality was commonly known (via some public knowledge shock) that the same individuals could not plausibly deny that they don’t know about Wilde’s homosexuality, they started distancing themselves from Wilde, because they were now running for themselves (i.e., they could not be seen as endorsing Wilde’s homosexuality). Ari Adut’s follow-on work on public sphere in Sociological Theory also has a nice elaboration of this logic.

    In short, scandal seems to be defined by its common knowledge status – that’s why the attempt to keep something secret (or at least away from becoming common knowledge) might inevitably be part of the story about scandals. Therefore, it seems as though the topic of scandal can be pretty much anything, including religion (as you nicely elaborate).

    Liked by 1 person

    Paul Lee

    July 14, 2016 at 9:20 pm

  3. Thanks Paul and Chris, and of course I should have mentioned Ari’s work here. Thanks for drawing attention to it!

    Like

    jeffguhin

    July 14, 2016 at 9:26 pm

  4. Further sociologically relevant because it involved probably the highest ranking academic sociologist, PSU pres Graham Spanier

    Liked by 1 person

    Philip N. Cohen

    July 14, 2016 at 9:50 pm


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