Can Civility Return at Penn State?

Probably not. Here is the big obstacle facing President Eric Barron.

Eric Barron is never going to get the civility he desires at Penn State.

It was nice of him to reach out on Friday, admirable that he attempted to bridge the gap — in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal — between those who want to move on and those who won’t move on until Joe Paterno is exonerated, dammit. But his is an impossible task.

Penn State’s new president unwittingly pointed out that impossibility in his open letter pleading for a new civility on campus. “Reasonable people disagree,” he wrote, “but we can disagree without sacrificing respect.”

The problem: “Reasonable people” are not in equal supply on both sides of the conflict.

There are the Truthers, and there is everybody else, and it is not “everybody else” causing the crisis of civility at the university.

Let’s back up a second.

Penn State actually had the kind of unity and civility that Barron is seeking for a long time, when it had one story — a nice story — to tell about itself. It went something like this:

Where other major universities had chosen between Big Time Athletics and a Life of the Mind, Penn State had embraced both — and done so at the persistent urging of Paterno, its beloved longtime football coach, a Brown University grad no less! It was called the “Grand Experiment” and to be part of it — whether as a fan or an athlete — was to aim for Olympian heights of excellence in whatever endeavor you chose.

Now there are two stories, maybe more, and they will not be reconciled anytime soon.

One story generally accepts that Joe Paterno and university officials failed to investigate or report allegations against Sandusky with as much vigor as was needed, essentially letting Sandusky go free to commit more abuse for another decade or so. The other insists that at worst Paterno is no more to blame than other individuals and institutions that worked with Sandusky — notably, Sandusky’s charity Second Mile — and who also deserve scrutiny and criticism.

That’s a fairly sizeable gap in narratives. There’s also a yawning chasm in tactics.

If you write critically about Truthers and you’re on Twitter, you will be besieged by critics questioning your smarts and your integrity. (More than the usual number, I add from experience.) If you write about them, you’re on Twitter, and you’re a woman … well, watch out. Simply put, one side has decided to get ugly and stay ugly.

That’s not going to change just because Eric Barron asked nicely for change. Jay Paterno — Joe’s son — basically said so in his open-letter response to Barron. “ The actions of the University Administration have created people who legitimately feel frustrated and disenfranchised,” the younger Paterno wrote.

So how do you make all of this go away, then? You probably don’t. You settle in and decide to meet life in the “new normal.”

A few weeks ago,  First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing won the Congressional Medal of Honor that everybody agrees was well-deserved — for acts committed during the Civil War. Why the delay? Southern senators didn’t want to see a Yankee soldier recognized for heroism at Gettysburg. “It’s still sensitive,” said a person close to the issue.

It may be that Paterno’s Partisans embrace their lost cause every bit as tenaciously and as long as Southern senators do there. Which means Eric Barron had better settle in — he’s got 150 years to go (maybe ) before Penn State can be its old, civil self again. It’s unlikely to be any sooner than that.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.