Tu Quoque Penn State?

Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno

There is a scene repeated in many heroic cinematic dramas that have the wimpy committee (city fathers, board of education or corporate trustees) throw the hero to the wolves in the face of some illegitimate force that threatens, exemplifying their cowardice. The hero proceeds to face the evil on their behalf either to defeat it or die in the effort, in which case everyone is converted to a right mind and banish the evil en masse.

The reader may not be familiar with the term tu quoque. Tu Quoque is a very common fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. This is a classic Red Herring since whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge. However, as a diversionary tactic, Tu Quoque can be very effective, since the accuser is put on the defensive, and frequently feels compelled to defend against the accusation.” [S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (St. Martin’s, 1994)] At the very least it deflects full attention from the proper focalĀ  point. It is very like what any 3 yr. old does when, with a face smeared with chocolate points to a sibling when asked, “Who ate the candy?”

Yesterday was witness to what may become a classic example of tu quoque when the milquetoast Trustees of Penn State University pointed the finger of responsibility away from themselves and other managers of the institution and toward their proposed martyr Joe Paterno. They seemed more worried about the potential costs of lawyers and calculations of future value in the eyes of those talking heads who always apologize for any politically correct misadventures.

Penn State's Board of Trustees
Penn State's Board of Trustees

His stature at the institution was so high that they calculated that firing him for “not doing more” about a terrible crime would draw enough attention in itself that they could mimic Pontius Pilate and claim to have washed their hands of the affair.

As a society we make laws that are supposed to govern our behavior in any official capacity. Following such laws should serve as the guide approved by society and so properly limit official culpability for any event. For instance, should cameras installed on street corners be used to publicly excoriate those who on their walks to work walked pass an auto accident without reporting to public authorities details of what they witnessed? The expectation that one would normally do the opposite is embodied in those laws protecting “whistle blowers” and even providing unusual incentives to encourage them to overcome natural inclinations and come forward.

In this case it seems apparent that a fellow who belonged an age group a few generations older than the current one that has been indoctrinated with the administration face-saving “zero tolerance” of whatever is the public offense du jour. The information made public indicates The coach was made aware of bad things and reported them to his superiors, apparently without delay. His job was coaching. Theirs was administration. He did as was required. Might we wish he had done more? In hindsight, of course. Was anything he did villainous? Of course not. If the current course of events continues:

  • the real bad guy won’t be “in the news” as much as he deserves
  • the real bad guy won’t be punished anywhere near the degree he deserves
  • the coach will be punished many times more harshly relative to his actions than the real bad guy.
  • the coach will not be allowed to finish his career with deserved dignity
  • the coach will have his name associated by headlines with the heinous crime more-so than its perpetrator will.

The Board of Trustees appearing on TV last night couldn’t have been type cast any more perfectly in their part as the milquetoast cowards whose only concern was to find a lightening rod for the anticipated public ire in a man who had served their institution with more trust than they.

Tu quoque Penn State.