The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has ordered that all of Penn State’s football victories under former coach Joe Paterno be vacated. This is an attempt to set the past right. Paterno, by all reports, ignored evidence that one of his coaches was sexually abusing children. If Paterno failed to protect the children, which apparently he did, then he acted wrongly and immorally.
However, rewriting history to declare that Penn State lost rather than won numerous football games between 1998 and 2011 does nothing to help the abused children. Nor is it honest. Penn State won those games. Furthermore, rewriting history is dishonest and therefore immoral.
Other attempts to rewrite history show the foolishness of attempting the impossible, i.e., pretending the past did not happen. The communists frequently rewrote history to suit their ideological purposes. Their ideological opponents ridiculed these attempts and pointed to the fallacious histories as evidence of communism’s intellectual bankruptcy.
Fundamentalist Christians in the United States are engaged in a campaign to convince people that the founders were devout Christians (in fact, most of the prominent founders were deists who intentionally distanced themselves from orthodox Christian theology). These efforts invite similar ridicule, affording non-fundamentalists one more reason to reject the fundamentalist message.
In general, people and organizations can take only two steps to set the past right. First, one can express regret for what happened. Expressing regret is different from apologizing. Apologizing is meaningful only when it comes from a person or organization responsible for the wrong (cf. Ethical Musings: Apologies Wanted). Expressing regret acknowledges the wrong but omits any misguided effort to take responsibility when responsibility belongs elsewhere. Second, one can attempt to set things right, especially to make restitution, to those the wrong harmed.
Ironically, rewriting history adds insult to injury (if not further injury) by pretending that the wrong did not happen. Nobody knows to what extent the Penn State football program succeeded because Paterno ignored his staff’s immoral and unlawful behaviors. Penalizing Penn State players, who presumably had no knowledge of the illicit activities, by vacating the wins, contributes nothing toward restitution or setting things right.
Bad things happen. This is a basic tenet of all of the world’s major religions. Christianity labels human participation in bad things sin. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the futility of rewriting history, e.g., a woman who lies about what she and her husband did with their money drops dead (the story of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-10). Whether one regards that story as historical fact or as illustrative, the message is clear: rewriting history, personal or institutional, is impossible.
The most insidious form of rewriting history is when an individual or organization consciously or unconsciously strives to rewrite its history for its own benefit. For an individual, psychologists call this rewriting denial or repression. Denial and repression prevent the individual from living as abundantly as possible while burdening the person with an energy sapping and ultimately futile efforts to pretend the past did not happen.
Terms are not readily available when this rewriting occurs in an organization, but the results are parallel to what happens in the individual. The organization, denying its past, cannot learn from previous mistakes or foibles. Repressing the past, the organization creates an unhealthy and dysfunctional climate/psychology. Anyone familiar with very many local religious congregations has probably witnessed efforts to rewrite history by denying or repressing details of unpleasant or unfortunate incidents. The result is consistently destructive.
For both individuals and organizations, health begins by shedding light on the past and acknowledging what actually occurred, preliminary steps in expressing regret. Only then is progress toward health possible. Honesty remains the best policy.