Purity, Penn State, and All of Us

The Freakonomics documentary explores corruption in the world of sumo wrestling. In the book, sumo wrestlers were exposed for fixing matches to benefit one another in rankings and, therefore, social status and salary. The documentary takes this expose a step further, asking questions about how the cultural perception of purity that sumo wrestling has in Japan actually enables the cheating to take place.

Two Japanese words tell the story. The tatamea, the facade of propriety, that sumo wrestling has through its use of Shinto purification rituals hides the home, the real truth, that sumo wrestling is rampant with corruption and cheating. Here is how the authors of Freakonomics describe it:

“Purity is a good mask for corruption because it discourages inquiry.”

“The illusion of purity can not only hide corruption; it can help to make it possible.”

Within the last week, the mask has been pulled off of the Penn State University football program. For years, Joe Paterno has been held up as the paragon of what is good in college sports. He was the successful coach who did it the right way. He ran a model program. He was the living legend. The college football coach of the year award is named after him. He was the moral compass of collegiate sports.

The tatamea is the aptly named Happy Valley, where there was no need to suspect any kind of corruption because the pure Paterno reigned. The home, the real truth, was that the program with the reputation of purity actually employed, protected, and gave access to a brutal pedophile.

Certainly, Jerry Sandusky, the pedophile, is responsible for his actions. But he is not alone in culpability. Penn State, Joe Paterno, the college sports media, and all of us, share the culpability for perpetrating the myth that the Penn State program under Joe Paterno was legendary for doing things the right way. The illusion of purity that we all participated in made the corruption possible.

Penn State is not alone. Churches and Christian organizations have suffered through this same kind of humiliation as the reality of their corruption has been made public. Certainly, the easy example is the priest pedophilia scandal in the Catholic church. But much closer to home for me is the ongoing investigation into the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism and its protection of a pedophile doctor in Bangladesh.

ABWE projected an image as a professional and pure proponent of the gospel, as the best mission agency with the best missionaries. Accusations of abuse were covered up because they threatened to tarnish that image. The home of pedophilia might compromise ABWE’s ability to continue its tatamea of spreading the gospel. Even now, sadly, it seems like ABWE is still trying to sugarcoat the story to protect its image.

Certainly, Donn Ketcham, the missionary doctor in Bangladesh who perpetrated the pedophilia, is responsible for his actions. But he is not alone in his culpability. ABWE, its administrators, missionaries and supporting churches are all responsible too because they perpetrated the myth, not the reality, of ABWE. There was no need for anyone to make an inquiry because the mask of purity was hiding the corruption.

Individuals do this too. If we act better than we are, people won’t ask us hard questions. If we project an image of having it all together, people will just assume that we do. If we wear the mask of purity, we can continue to be corrupt without suspicion.

Here is what I propose:

How about we all just stop pretending?

How about we stop putting ourselves or each other up on pedestals?

How about we stop thinking that some politician, some football coach, some preacher is a moral compass for us all?

How about we stop trusting that governments and movements and corporations and charities and churches are pure or benevolent?

How about we all give up our bias of purity and employ a healthy dose of cynicism in regard to just about everything?

How about we all get real?

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” – Louis Brandeis

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  • Aren’t there degrees of hypocrisy, though? I am painfully aware of my short-comings, but to what extent do I “mask” or even broadcast them?