What’s With Our Rush to Judgment?

I’ve spent a lot of time the last week or so thinking about Joe Paterno and Paula Deen. Yes, an odd pairing on many levels, but here’s what keeps hitting me again and again about both – our penchant for rushing to judgment.

I think we’ve all seen some extremes expressed about these individuals lately. And I’m not going to discount those viewpoints here as much as state my desire for some consideration of the nuance that goes into our decision making. Maybe it’s a call for humanity.

In Inferno, Dante reserves a special place in hell for those who don’t take a stand, calling it, “… the sorrowful state of souls unsure …” So maybe I’m putting myself right in the furnace here, but sometimes it seems intelligent, adult and even humane to be on the fence.

The truth is, when it comes to Paterno and Deen, I’m mixed. Perhaps my self-imposed pressure to pick a side, so to speak, is a product of the very problem I want to rail against – black and white thinking.

For I don’t know how to look in the eye of a victim of childhood sexual abuse and say, “You know what, you’re wrong to feel the way you do about Joe Paterno. Your pain is insignificant.”

Nor can I look in the eye a man who was once an athlete playing for Joe Paterno and say, “I don’t care what your experience with him was. I completely dismiss that he made you the principled, hardworking man you are today.”

Is one of these camps right and the other wrong? Really? Is it that simple for people?

When I wrote a Game Plan column back in November about the bystander effect in the Penn State scandal revolving around former coach Jerry Sandusky, I got a fair amount of mail defending Paterno. In fact, that piece was, if anything, about making clear how common bystanding is (according to the expert quoted in that article, Mike Dilbeck, 80% as opposed to the 20% who opt to “make choices that bring down their communities”). That is less an indictment of one individual and more a commentary on our collective psyche, the one that doesn’t get “involved” for one reason or another.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who conducted the final interview with Paterno before he died last weekend, brought the kind of nuance the situation requires to an online chat with readers.

“I think Paterno struggled his whole career with the problem of football glorification and knew it was dangerous,” she wrote. “Yet I also think he was susceptible to it -- he was a very big man in a small town. He also knew it was dangerous to set yourself on declared higher moral plane than your competitors, yet he did that too. Hey, he was human. All in all, he probably did a pretty good job of remembering he wasn't the King of England, when everyone around him treated him that way. But he wasn't perfect. He was irascible, superior. He was also genuinely decent and a bonafide educator.”

Yes, one can be all of those things. Aren’t we all a complex combination of qualities? Don’t we often make decisions we later see as imperfect after further scrutiny?

Time will tell, but I suspect the web of deceit and coverup that we’ll soon learn about from the allegations against Sandusky will shake us to our collective core. Another round of finger-pointing and worse, and then another, awaits us.

Every day in the news there’s something that sends us to that rush, rush, rush to judgment. From grave to petty to disappointing.

This brings me to Deen, a woman whose story of overcoming panic attacks and agoraphobia when she was in her 20s is awe-inspiring. Yes, from afraid to leave the house to a sought-after author and celebrated cook on Food Network. Yes, from making sandwiches in her kitchen to her own restaurant to a major television personality. Her proclivity to include butter--often a lot of it--in everything is her signature. It’s authentically who she is.

None of that goes away because she decided not to share with her audience a few years ago that she has Type 2 diabetes. I can’t dispute that perhaps others could have been educated by her coming clean sooner, but is the piling-on really necessary or helpful?

Since the whole idea of becoming a spokesperson is to speak publicly for a product, Deen knew she was outing herself when she signed on with Novo Nordisk. From the outrage and cruelty I’ve read in articles and in the comments sections of articles on this topic, you’d think she traded state secrets.

I have watched Deen – and for that matter Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay – for many hours of my life. It’s relaxing for me to see people in their craft. At no point did I think, let me eat like that every day for the rest of my life and it will make me healthy, trim and strong. I get ideas, like maybe I should try parsley in my next salad or a touch of nutmeg in my greens. These are people who like to cook and they’re sharing their joy and gift with us.

There might be a lesson in here somewhere to stop latching ourselves on to other human beings in ways that put them on pedestals and ask them to be infallible. But really I think it’s to be more aware of the totality of a person, the sum of their actions, when we get out the robes and gavel and climb up on that high falutin’ bench.

With all due respect to Dante, sometimes a soul unsure is just right.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.