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The Risk of Assuming We Know What the “Survivors” Want

Recently, “Victim #4” from the Sandusky trial spoke out in anger towards the NCAA and Penn State as it simultaneously assumed their desires, and chose not to consult them for their thoughts about Joe Paterno’s statue and the NCAA sanctions. As it turned out, he remained a Penn State fan, and had strong emotions about what transpired and how the process unfolded.

As one who had the blessing of a relatively good childhood, and in light of the divisive nature of the entire Penn State scandal, commenting on this can be tricky.

Let me first come clean. I have been an ardent defender of my town of State College. I have been a critic of the NCAA’s apparent overreach of jurisdiction to levy punishments on people I believe had nothing to do with Sandusky and the alleged coverup (the players themselves were only in elementary school in 2001). I believe that the Freeh Report, though conducted in good faith, contained severe limitations and flaws that continue to threaten the credibility of its findings.

I have encouraged everybody to gain a nuanced perspective of Paterno’s legacy, understanding both his accomplishments and regrets. And in the end, I had honestly hoped to maintain a competitive football team – so that, at the grassroots, that football team, the greater Penn State infrastructure, and one of the most socially conscious student body in the nation could have the tools and visibility to exact real, lasting changes against child sex abuse and secretive practices.

Never have I claimed to know, TRULY KNOW, what the victims felt.

I personally believed that many of the survivors from Sandusky’s assaults would want to levy the heaviest possible penalties on the Penn State Football program altogether. I still think that. Even today, I remain terrified at the vengeance they might voice at my town and my school. And because of that, I was surprised and touched that “Victim #4” may have understood the folly of a scorch-Earth punitive response. I was further touched by his implicit reminder that consequences from the scandal should not make new victims.

And that’s the point. What we assume about those in society who are the most defenseless, indeed with the least voice, might ultimately render them more voiceless. There is a risk in making assumptions about what victims think, what they want, and how they will make sense of their ordeals. As a society, we should not violate their thoughts by imposing our own.

What I am writing about is really not a matter of preserving or sanctioning football, not about defending my town, or increasing a nuanced perspective about Joe Paterno. Instead, it is about how we allow “victims” – no, “survivors” – to own their stories, to have a voice in it, and to have the ability to make meaning of their trauma in their own ways (not as dictated or assumed by you and me).

To me, the grandstanding attempts by many to “always think first about the victims,” namely by the NCAA, BigTen, and other commentators, seems at least a bit hollow when you consider that very few people in this country really know who these “victims” are, as unique individuals. When “Victim #4” spoke out as a fan of Penn State and about his displeasure at being rendered voiceless in the decision to sanction the program, a sanction done partly in his name, it contrasted with the dominant assumption that all the victims deserve to see “extensive” and “crippling” actions against the university and football team. No no no.

What the victims deserve to have is a voice, one that they never had a chance to exercise, to which we will listen with respect. We may not agree with what they want. But then again, we just might. This is where dialogue starts. Perhaps they want to destroy the program. Perhaps they want sanctions that won’t severely cripple the program. Perhaps they want Penn State to be the torchbearer in righting the wrongs of child sex abuse and bureaucratic blunders. Perhaps they don’t want to affect the program at all.

Without listening to the survivors, we would not know what they want, nor should we feign to know.

I have always criticized the manufactured and self-congratulatory competition or game that many people play to appear more against child sex abuse than the next person. So rarely have we considered that all of us are equally disgusted by the situation. Things aren’t always so black and white. Sure, child sex abuse is evil. Sure, covering it up, intentionally or not, is an indication of a fallen world. But we need to grow up and understand with maturity that how we make sense of evil, how we balance it with the good, is absolutely as gray and unclear as a foggy morning at my home by the Chesapeake Bay.

The black-or-white diet of newsfeeds is too simplistic and leads to too many generalizations, too many stereotypes, and too many attempts to fit all “victims” into a neat little box. If we want to truly encourage healing among the survivors, what we need, instead, is a healthy respect for particularity. Deconstruct the generalization, become nuanced in digging past the stereotype, and unpack each “survivor” from that figurative neat little box – and do it with singular care.

The “survivors” are individuals. We cannot impose on them what WE THINK about WHAT THEY SHOULD THINK. The survivors are not a common-thinking, common-feeling entity. Each owns his or her particular story. Each cannot speak wholly for the story of the next survivor, nor should we be allowed to speak for any and all of them. They deserve to have a voice in narrating their own story. Lord knows that they were silenced for years.

So, whether we are thinking about “Survivor #4” or any other survivor, take great care in respecting and understanding the nuances about the individual and unique stories they experienced. Many years ago, Jerry Sandusky and the situation at Penn State forced them all to be quiet. Today, the dominant narrative around the nation has assumed the right to speak for these same survivors. In both cases, the survivors were victimized and rendered voiceless. If we claim to know what the survivors want, then we must truly KNOW what they want.

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