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(Penn) State Secrets

Last week, after I had finally purged all I had to say about Frank Ocean’s letter into a post, I once again returned to reading some of the responses that had been sent to me in the time since Ocean published his Tumblr post. Most of them did as I had lamented in my piece. That is, rather than focus on what Ocean had actually–and eloquently–said, the pieces obscured his words with (not so) implicitly self-congratulatory remarks about being straight-identified and finding bravery in coming out and being a “hip-hop” artist. There were notable exceptions to that rule, though. One of which, a Thought Catalog piece by Mensah Demary, did a really elegant job of deconstructing the power that secrets hold over us and connecting how Ocean’s beautiful divulging of his own secret was a reclamation of agency:

[T]he tighter we clutch the secrets, the more threatening they become to us. No one must know about an event, a moment in time, a feeling, a thought, a truth: so we build elaborate vaults around our secrets like currency we never intend to spend; legal tender never circulated and passed on hand to hand.

We cherish our secrets, which aren’t secrets by nature; they are mere truths which, for one reason or another, shame us, embarrass us, reveal us and thrusts us into a searing light where all can see and prod and dissect our truths — appropriate them as their own forms of currency: this is how knowledge becomes “power.” This is how knowledge strips away agency.

Although I spent most of last week thinking long and hard about how this piece really elucidated how the straight-identified, “We’re so proud of you, Frank” campaign violently revoked Ocean’s power of his own story and re-othered him (because others always have less power), I found myself returning to the above quote as I listened to portions of The Freeh Report on Pennsylvania State University, the 250+ page document discussing the university’s response to allegations of Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse. The report essentially states that former coach and football saint, Joe Paterno and other high-ranking leaders at Penn State covered up the crimes “more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity, allowing Sandusky to prey on other youngsters.”

Fear of bad publicity. Let that sink in.

This is beyond appalling. If there is such a thing, this is wicked.

When news of these crimes initially emerged, I wrote a couple of pieces that questioned just how brave some of us think we’d be if we had been Mike McQueary, the former PSU assistant coach who belatedly blew the whistle on the entire scandal. At the risk of inappropriately appropriating Demary’s thoughts about secrets, I think the Penn State scandal is the ultimate example of how powerfully damaging keeping secrets can be. When those of us who are least vulnerable choose to keep secrets and channel all of our energies to suppressing information to maintain our power, our image, we not only destroy ourselves, but, more devastatingly, we damage those who have less power than we do. To continue the currency theme, Penn State worked as a Fort Knox in this case. It unethically wielded its power to protect the cornerstone of its image: a football program with a man, believed to be morally upright, at its core. Among outsiders, Joe Paterno was considered a football saint; and he used that saintly capital to quell anything that might crumble the facade that he had built. Apparently, he, too, believed that he was superhuman, and was willing to do anything, even something morally reprehensible, to maintain that lie.

When we give way to secrets, let them to metastasize, we inevitably allow them to eat away at those other aspects of ourselves that would help us do the “right” thing, to stop us. Yet it also seems that the selfishness needed to maintain a secret requires that we look at others as mere obstacles in our secret maintenance. When we stop allowing secrets to dominate, when we free ourselves from them by reclaiming our power, we not only allow ourselves to be human, but we see others as human beings, as like us. And perhaps if we saw the humanity in others, we would not treat them so poorly.

I know that justice perhaps escapes those human beings we now refer to as Jerry Sandusky’s victims. But maybe we all, not just football fans, can learn this incredibly hard lesson about secret keeping, corruption, and the horrendous ways people will behave when they believe they have something to hide–and the power to keep it hidden.

Tell a secret today.


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