Dick Cavett, of all people, writes about a perverse tradition at Yale back in his undergraduate years:

Who’d have guessed that another requisite for being a true-blue Yalie was, strange as it seemed, good posture. Hence the phrase that yet lives in infamy, “The Posture Pictures.”

Every single member of the freshman class in those days was required to strip for the prying camera. Then they put you up against a graph on the wall and photographed you, front, side and back.

They did it to men, they did it to women. And not just Yale: it was an Ivy League thing. More:

I’m sure there are conclusions to be drawn here by deeper thinkers than I about obedience to authority, reluctance to rock boats with protest, etc. People hearing of this crazy caper on the part of major American universities say, “I wouldn’t have stood for this for a second!”

If that’s true, why did everybody go along back then?

Of course Yale research psychologist Stanley Milgram answered that question fairly satisfactorily with his (in)famous experiment. You know the one? It proved that people would be willing to inflict torturous electric shocks upon innocents if they were instructed to by someone they recognized as an authority. As Milgram later wrote about the results:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Today I spent some time with a friend who is a Penn State graduate. I asked him what he thought about the scandal there. It was interesting to watch his body language. He squirmed. He grimaced. This thing is causing him real anguish. He’s a good man, and he knows that what happened was horrible. And yet … JoePa. He loves the guy. Loves. Him. My friend said, “It’s hard for me to explain to you how important JoePa is to us. He was everything. This idea that the president of the university was his boss? Bullshit. That guy would wash JoePa’s car if he asked him to.”

It was extraordinary, really, to hear my friend speak of a football coach in this way. There was nothing glib about it. My friend’s body language showed me how much this is eating him up. I don’t want to overstate this, but it’s seeming to me that to call Paterno a football coach is like calling the Pope a parish priest.

Of course this is not really about football. It’s about authority, and Joe Paterno’s status as an icon of morality, and the Good. In a way, the fact that this scandal involves something as relatively trivial as college sports helps us to understand the strange human propensity to conformity better. It’s not like the survival of the nation was at stake here. It was just football, but a lot of people here locate a key part of their personal and collective identity in Penn State football, and in the person of Joe Paterno. If JoePa said, either explicitly or by his actions, that what Sandusky did was okay, or at least nothing to get too upset over, then it was okay as far as those closest to the program (who would have been the only ones to know about Sandusky’s alleged crimes, I would imagine) were concerned. My friend conceded today that if JoePa had demanded that Sandusky be turned over to the police when he was caught in 2002 allegedly molesting that boy, as shocking as the whole thing would have been, the whole university would have jumped to execute his wishes.

JoePa had that kind of authority. Which is why his moral responsibility is so great.

Beyond JoePa, though, what about the rest of us? Not in the Penn State matter, I mean, but in situations we have been in, or might be in. If we were ordered to inflict pain on an innocent person, or to do so indirectly by turning a blind eye when someone else was doing it, and we were told to do so by an authority figure we trusted, would we do it? We’d like to think we wouldn’t, but Milgram’s experiment indicates that that’s not true. Even with stupid things, like Ivy League undergrads consenting to be photographed naked — everybody went along with it. We are afraid to defy authority, whether that authority is invested in a leader (the coach, the commander, the priest) or in the group.

Conformity can generate such sweet feelings of exaltation. One of the most shameful moments of my life was when I stood in the courtyard of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem back in 2000, waiting for the Pope to arrive. I spotted an American cardinal I recognized on the other side of the square. I hustled over to meet him, took his hand, bent and kissed his ring. It was Bernard Law. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with kissing the ring of a cardinal. What made my act shameful — and I would say this even if Law hadn’t been disgraced, though it really came home to me after his disgrace — was my spiritual and moral disposition in doing that act of respect. Oh, was I ever proud of myself in that moment for showing myself to be a loyal son of the Church! I was not like those disrespectful liberals who didn’t know how to be properly pious and respectful of church authority (and besides, Cardinal Law was a good orthodox/conservative Catholic, ergo One Of Us). I was so proud of myself for being so “humble.” That wasn’t humility, though. Nor was it piety. It was my way of showing I was a loyal member of the team, and feeling satisfied with myself that I was a loyal member of the team.

That, in short, was conformism. But I didn’t see that at the time. I saw myself as loyal.