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Once, there was a grand experiment.
Psychologists ushered a person into a little room with a one-way mirror and a simple switchboard.
Levers indicated electric shock levels from low to debilitating.
The man in the white lab coat offered basic instructions: read questions to the man or woman you can’t see behind the mirror.
For each wrong answer, buzz them with an electric shock.
The more wrong answers, the more intense the current.
As the incorrect answers grew, so did the screams of pain of the unseen people behind the mirror.
Some participants stopped immediately. Some questioned the man in the white lab coat, who simply stated that they must continue.
And most, about 65 percent, continued to shock victims until the bitter end, delivering 450 volts of electricity.
Good thing the person behind the mirror was just an actor, set up to test those who ultimately failed.
The Milgram shock experiment became infamous as a psychological lesson in conformity, to try to understand why people abandon one of the essential pillars of humanity — not harming the innocent — in the sight of authority.
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno formulated his own grand experiment: to be the emblem of class and responsibility in collegiate sports.
And he’s not the only one who failed it.
We don’t scribble down our moral to-do lists on Post-It notes.
I know I don’t.
Those things we’re supposed to value as sacred exist solely in our own heads.
No one answers a question about their well-being with, “I’m feeling especially ethical today, how about you?”
And when people don’t keep moral promises, we react.
I’m sure you’ve gotten your full share of reactions, from ESPN talking heads to angry Penn State students to JoePa himself.
But as you may have guessed, this scandal has become bigger than itself.
We’d all hope that we’d do the right thing, despite the possible risk.
That our innate sense of right and wrong would guide us to help those who cannot help themselves.
That is, when we’re not too busy protecting ourselves.
For years to come, when newspapers and cable TV and radio have moved past this scandal, I know I’ll still be wondering how deep the deception went and how far the cover up spread among Penn State staff and administration.
How many other people continued to punish the innocent by remaining silent for far too long.
Milgram’s experiment sought to show us that it isn’t the few that can be cruel; that same kind of cruelty is inside of all of us, whether we can admit it to ourselves or not.
We are all susceptible to falling short of our own moral expectations, as disappointing and devastating as it may be.
Paterno and Penn State found that out the hard way.
And hopefully, none of us will have to learn the same lesson.