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Culture War an Unfair Attack?

by on March 26, 2015 6:00 AM

With many high profile criminal stories that emerge, society seems to want to investigate not only the alleged perpetrator, but also the culture of the group to which the perpetrator belongs.

It is especially true if offenders are members of a group endowed with some perceived advantage or authority.

Be it police officers, fraternity members, politicians or athletes, individual actions must be a part of some overriding "culture" that enables or promotes this behavior.

Far too often we get it wrong.

In Ferguson, Mo. an anti-black police culture was the reason an officer killed an unarmed suspect with his hands up while he stated "Don't shoot". Last December Rolling Stone Magazine used an allegation from a female student to assail the "Rape Culture" of the Fraternity system at The University of Virginia. Here in State College we lived through our own story—the "culture of big football" was blamed for the actions of one man.

We now know in all of these instances those characterizations are unfounded.

At Penn State we're going through this again. Recent allegations against members of one fraternity posting pictures on a private Facebook site triggered a similar reaction. Even before the filing of any criminal charges, the university announced the establishment of a task force promising "meaningful and lasting change" to look into the fraternity and sorority system.

That announcement sparked a Washington Post story that started down the same path of elitist and racist fraternity culture that allows or encourages these actions. The story surprisingly lacked depth, given that newspaper investigated and uncovered the false allegations in the Rolling Stone story about the University of Virginia.

To make their point about fraternities nationwide the Washington Post cited no national statistics, no extensive research into the rate of crimes committed by fraternity members versus the male student population at large. The article mentioned the allegation at Penn State and incidents at three other fraternities nationwide.

An argument citing four incidents among 400,000 fraternity members nationally as proof of a system that's out of control lacks hard data to back up that claim. It doesn't mean there aren't problems, but it certainly falls well short of proving there are systemic problems.

This is not atypical. Sports Illustrated ran a story in 2011 citing the statistic that 7 percent of all players in the Top 25 college football teams had been charged with a crime. It seemed high because the article insinuated that it was a big number. But the truth was the rate of college football players being just charged was actually much lower than the national average for men of their same age group being convicted of crimes.

The same is true for the NFL. Halfway through 2013 reports of 28 NFL players being charged with crimes was highlighted as proof that  the  culture of NFL players is violent. Those 28 players represented an arrest rate of 1.6 percent. That compares with an arrest rate of 10.39% for men in the same age range in this country.

Before anyone misinterprets the intent of this article — let me state that certainly any and all of the allegations that have surfaced, if true, are serious. No one condones this behavior. However, we must not fall into the trap of believing that an individual's acts are always a reflection of the group that person belongs to, or of some "culture" fostered by that group. It is the old "the Devil made me do it" argument writ large so we can assault organizations or institutions of perceived authority or privilege. Worst of all, blaming the group erases the idea of personal responsibility and accountability for actions.

Let's face the fact that in every group there are bad people who do bad or stupid things of their own accord. Last week Penn State President Dr. Barron correctly stated that only the people involved should be punished for their actions, and that was the best way for everyone to learn.

This week he backtracked when he stated "KDR members are only the latest fraternity brothers on campuses nationwide to be found participating in unacceptable activities."

Using anecdotal evidence of isolated actions to brand everyone in the fraternity system nationwide is unfortunate. Using one small group of people to assault the fraternity and sorority system's "culture" at Penn State ignores the thousands who shared a culture of philanthropy last month to raise $13 million to battle pediatric cancer.

But I understand it. The fallback position for society and the media, in many cases these days, is to blame the actions of a few on a "culture" created by groups to which the perpetrators belong. It is an easy trap to fall into when we look for someone or something to blame.

At Penn State and in State College, we of all people should recognize the dangers of these arguments. We fell in the crosshairs of that argument, one that branded our entire community in an unfair and ultimately untruthful light that still casts a shadow here.

I hope we as a community have learned to stop playing to the media narrative. I hope we allow due process to play out, and if there are wrongs to be righted, hold the people who committed them accountable without blaming an entire school or Greek system for the actions of a few.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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