Even People Who Coach Your Team Have To Live In Society

There’s a natural cognitive bias towards believing that someone who’s in your tribe, someone you identify with, can do no wrong. And that can allow a lot of wrong to get done.
Publish date:
November 14, 2011
child abuse, sports fans, joe paterno, kurt vonnegut

The religion in Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," Bokononism -- which for a made-up religion has had a pretty big influence on my life -- has a concept called the "granfalloon."

A granfalloon is one of the artificial boxes we file ourselves in, any meaningless classification that people identify with and use to identify with each other. Vonnegut’s examples: “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company -- and any nation, anytime, anywhere."In Bokononism, the problem with granfalloons is that they obstruct your ability to see the one group that has any importance, which is your karass. A karass is a group of people who, whether they know it or not, have a single purpose and need each other’s help to achieve it. That’s a little new-agey for me, and no surprise -- we are talking about a religion, after all, albeit a made-up one that freely admits to being mostly lies anyway. But granfalloons make sense to me. I do see people lashing themselves together all the time with perfectly inconsequential ties.One of those, one of the big ones, is sports teams. And there have been many unpleasant aspects of human nature laid bare by the tragic happenings at Penn State, but one of the ones that struck me most was the way it demonstrates the real dangerousness of granfalloons. There’s a natural cognitive bias toward believing that someone who’s in your tribe, someone you identify with, can do no wrong. And that can allow a lot of wrong to get done.

What happens when your vision is clouded by a granfalloon? Well, as long as someone is playing by the rules of the group, you become inclined to ignore even major transgressions against outsiders. This illusory kinship overshadows your real kinship with other members of human society -- which, despite having a lot of different norms and mores, as we all learned in 7th-grade social studies, has worked out a few basic common principles of compassion and decency such as “no raping children.”

So for the Nittany Lions fan or the Penn State student -- both giant granfalloons -- it becomes more important for Joe Paterno to do right by the school or the team than it is for him to do right. For the film buff or the self-styled intellectual, it becomes more important for Roman Polanski to make great cinema than for him to make amends for admitted crimes.

If you feel a false connection with these men, you may think their only responsibility is to you and your fellow granfalloon members. You may think this overshadows any responsibility they might have to their fellow humans. You would be wrong.Penn State students rioted, actually went out in the streets and overturned cars, to protest Joe Paterno being fired for covering up a child’s rape. (Alleged rape, for legal reasons, but according to the information Paterno seems to have gotten and failed to act on, there was a rape committed.) Sure, people in “college team x fans” type granfalloons are kind of unstable to rioting for whatever reason, but in this case, they were rioting explicitly against Paterno facing consequences for protecting a rapist.

Why? Because dammit, he makes their team win. And isn’t that more important than his responsibility to some far-off thing called human society?Likewise, the last time the Polanski thing reared its head, I had an I-wouldn’t-believe-this-if-I-weren’t-seeing-it conversation on Facebook with a friend of a friend who said, point blank, that he cared more about “Rosemary’s Baby” than about the rape of a child. If Polanski’s only responsibility is to the granfalloon of cinema nuts, then sure, I guess that makes sense. But in fact, he still lives out here in the world with the rest of us.Wrapping yourself in an identity is comforting; it makes you feel like you belong, like someone’s looking out for you. But if you wrap up in it tightly enough, it will cover your eyes. People let their granfalloons outweigh their logic, their compassion, and their sense of perspective -- you do it, and I do it too, though I hope to god we both check ourselves before we start rioting against the idea that even coaches should not condone child abuse.

Some rules apply to everyone, even people you really like.