Men and Their Institutions

I’ve heard that in ancient Polynesian culture, tribes seeking to expand would come ashore on a neighboring island. The newcomers and the male inhabitants would engage in a sort of ritual stare-down. Their angry faces and threatening posture were meant to intimidate the enemy. If the inhabitants showed no sign of weakness, the invading force would leave. But if the inhabitants betrayed fear, war would break out.

This posturing seems an efficient way of resolving conflict—a conflict derived from basic need. It’s easy to understand that if a population outgrew the resources of its island home, the only choices were to find new territory or starve. The human instinct to wage war is about survival. And men evolved to become effective at hiding their emotions.

I grew up believing that war was evil, but I’ve now lived long enough to recognize that war is sometimes necessary. On this Veterans Day, I’m grateful to those who have fought to preserve my freedom and way of life. In our modern society, war is less about territory and more about ideology. Even though the primitive needs that drove humans toward war have largely been eradicated in modern American society, those evolutionary adaptations that assisted men in waging war still remain. And they sometimes manifest themselves in disturbing ways.

On the battlefield, combatants commit what would be acts of atrocity in any other context. They violently protect their buddies from the enemy and even from civilians if necessary. This band of brothers mentality makes war possible. It makes a strong military possible. And military institutions are honorable ones when they’re designed to protect the innocent from aggression.

But outside a military environment, this instinct to protect your buddy when he’s committed an atrocity, or to engage in secrecy to protect your institution from the shame of violent acts perpetrated by one of its members, has no place. And that’s especially true when the victim is a child.

I’m a student of human nature. I write because I want to understand why people do the things they do. But as a writer and a native Pennsylvanian, I’m struggling to understand how an institution like the Penn State football program could knowingly allow a child rapist to operate in its midst.

Does some basic evolutionary drive account for how these men protected one of their cronies by covering up the abuse of children? Or were the men involved in this case an anomaly, driven by the arrogance and selfishness that are our shared human condition?

Even if this behavior can be explained by some primitive instinct, there’s still no excuse for it. As Jodie Foster said when she accepted the Best Actress Oscar for The Accused: “Cruelty might be very human, and it might be cultural, but it’s not acceptable.”

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