Constructing Character

November 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative, is grappling with what he calls “the sins of Joe Paterno.”  Douthat draws a parallel with a Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who worked admirably in Colombia – against poverty, against hunger, against the Medellin cartel – but then denied, minimized, and helped cover up sexual abuse in the Church. 
How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Colombia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome? In the same way, perhaps, that college football’s most admirable coach — a mentor to generations of young men, a pillar of his Pennsylvania community — could end up effectively washing his hands of the rape of a young boy. . . .
Here, abbreviated, is Douthat’s explanation:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. . . .

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind.  (The full Times op-ed is here.)
There’s much to be said about this (which is why this post is too long).  First of all, Douthat has no real knowledge of what Paterno or the cardinal were thinking or what “illusions” they carried in their minds. This is pure speculation, based on the relatively few facts that have become newsworthy.  I too have read about JoePa over the years, and I have seen him on my television, pacing the sidelines.  But I don’t think for a minute – well, maybe for a minute – that I know what’s going on in his psyche.

Second, the behavior of these two heroes is puzzling only because of Douthat’s basic assumption, the assumption of personal consistency.  It’s one that most of us make.  We attribute far too much consistency to other people.  We judge a person to be good and heroic or bad and mediocre, often on the basis of a very few bits of information.  We then assume that the good people will always do what is good, and the mediocre will always do what is weak. After that, it’s easy to float on the tide of confirmation bias. Most of the time we don’t see evidence to the contrary, or if we do see it, we don’t notice it. 

But when a discrepancy becomes unavoidable, we struggle, as Douthat does, to come up with explanations – but only explanations which do not disrupt that basic assumption about consistency or “character.” As Nabokov (speaking in Humbert’s voice) says,
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader's mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘King Lear,’ never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten . . . . The less often we see a particular person, the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We could prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
As Nabokov indicates, we apply this hard carapace of consistency not just to distant, famous figures, but to our friends and neighbors.  This constructing and attribution of characteristics goes on continuously, as Goffman  pointed out long ago (around the same time that Nabokov was writing Lolita).  We are always sizing up other people, forming impressions of them; and we are aware – sometimes painfully aware – that they are doing the same to us.  From a single act, people classify us as having the trait that goes with that act. 

Jay Smooth notes this same process in conversations about race.  If you point to some action or comment by a person, they often assume that you are also judging their entire character. 
“Are you saying that I am a racist?  I am a good person. How could you say that I’m a racist?”
And you try to respond, “No, I’m talking about the particular thing that you said.” 
“No, I am not a racist.”  
And what started out as a what-you-said conversation turns into a what-you-are conversation.  (The video is here, starting at about 1:20  You should watch the clip.  Jay Smooth is better in person than in print.  ht: Angie Andriot and Jenn Lena)
Of course, nobody wants to be thought of as a racist. But even when the description might be more flattering, we often resist these specific characterizations.  Those heroes we admire so much never think of themselves as heroes – not Superman, not Sully.   They were just doing their job or their duty.  Besides, they know all those facts about themselves, facts too ordinary to be mentioned in the media, which are unheroic.  No man is a hero to his valet, and in this Goffmanesque, information-control sense, we are all our own valets.  We know too much about ourselves to characterize ourselves as only heroic, villainous, or anything else. 

Paterno’s culpability, whatever it is, can be especially unsettling to a Ross Douthat not just because it threatens an image of JoePa as hero,* but because it threatens a whole theory of human character. But if we are making judgments, we’re probably more accurate in labeling actions rather than actors.

If only Douthat had been listening to Jay Smooth.
We need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift toward seeing being good as a practice.
* Douthat has come in for criticism for his choice of heroes.  But Douthat’s detractors engage in the same kind of labeling.  Kos, for example (here), sees Paterno and the cardinal not as heroes but as “assholes.”  The valence is negative rather than positive, but the process of character construction is the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe your readers think a carapace is simply a lucky day on the NY turnpike. This entry deserved a whole series of comments. So here's one!