Al Gore, Bill Cosby and the Ethics of Flawed Messengers

We can wait until the whole sordid mess plays out, but as someone who has spent a lot of time researching and training managers about sexual harassment, it is all but certain that Al Gore’s reputation is a goner. One accusation of sexual harassment can be and often is a false alarm. When more allegations of the same type begin to surface after one accuser has broken the dam, however, it is a sure sign that the accused is a serial harasser. The National Enquirer, which has a nose for sleaze (see: John Edwards) is reporting that two more masseuses in two different locales have reported in-room encounters with Gore that echo that of the Portland masseuse whose complaint about Gore was first stifled by her environmentalist friends, and later by the Portland police. This news puts in a new perspective Gore’s unseemly defenses of Bill Clinton’s conduct when Al was Veep, and may even begin to solve the mystery of why the “Love Story” Gores ended in divorce.  Al, in other words, probably really is a “crazed sex poodle.”

Will this development greatly damage his ability to exercise influence in the climates change debate? Of course it will. This is cognitive dissonance at work: if a person is associated with a strongly negative value, it drags down everything he endorses, represents or advocates. This is what makes the “politics of personal destruction” so  devastating. Human beings are incapable of sorting out the contradictions and inconsistencies in public figures who we only know from a distance; if we like and respect them and respect them, we are likely to appreciate their work and what they say. If we think one is a crazed sex poodle, however…well, it’s going to be hard to take him seriously.

In Gore’s case, this seems especially unfair. There are a lot of brilliant sexual harassers out there; I personally don’t think Gore is brilliant, but whether or not he molests masseuses shouldn’t change the validity (or not) of his message regarding global warming. We don’t see O.J. Simpson or Lindsay Lohan being engaged as advocates for lowering the deficit, either, though, no matter how intellectually persuasive they might be. The fact is that a serious message needs an admirable messenger, or the message will be ignored.

When the message is related to a messenger’s flaws, there is more reason to reject both, on grounds of hypocrisy. Bill Cosby, another serial harasser, encountered this phenomenon shortly after he became a prominent advocate for emphasizing values, ethics and morality in the African-American community.  As I wrote about his situation in 2007:

“Cosby’s answer … has been to say that his message should be evaluated on its own merits, and the mistakes he has made in his life are irrelevant. Cosby is trying to have it both ways. His message is being debated and publicized in the black community only because it is being delivered by him, Bill Cosby, celebrity, comedian, actor, producer, author and educator. The message wouldn’t have any impact if, for example, I delivered it; the black community doesn’t know me, or have a reason to listen to what I say. And Bill Cosby, who it appears gave drugged wine to at least fourteen young women (logic tells us it was probably more), cannot deliver this message either. When a parent who lets his children run wild sends me unsolicited parenting advice, I don’t give careful consideration to his recommendations because I don’t respect his parenting skills. Somewhere a seven year-old girl may be explaining the secret to world peace that we have sought for centuries, but even though she may have stumbled on the wisdom of the ages, she has no credibility. No one will listen. That’s life. “

No one wants to listen to what a crazed sex poodle has to say about civilization’s obligations to address climate change, either. This is where Gore has failed his public, his cause and his supporters. If a messenger has an important message to deliver, he or she must acknowledge human nature and how the persuasiveness and perceived wisdom of every message depends upon the character and conduct of the messenger. Having a powerful and important message is not good enough, even though logically it may seem that it should be.

Bill Cosby, who understood that his accomplishments gave him a platform to help change the conduct of some black parents for the better, also had an obligation not to undermine his power to deliver a message that could accomplish this important goal. He failed that obligation, and so, it seems, has Al Gore. Blinded by privilege, ego, celebrity, confidence that he would be protected by the police and the media, or just raw masseuse lust, Gore allowed selfish and irresponsible desires and instincts to interfere with his ability to advance an objective he has claimed will save humanity. What warped priorities! It is as if Paul Revere interrupted his ride on April 18, 1775 to spend a couple of hours in a bordello.

In the end, that is why it may be reasonable to discount Gore’s credibility as a climate change herald. If his message was so important, so critical to the future of the earth and the lives of millions, why would he risk impeding it for the chance to have some naughty romps in hotel room with intimidated young women?

If Al Gore didn’t take his own message, and his own importance as a messenger and a leader, more seriously than that, he deserves no credibility.

UPDATE: Portland police have closed their investigation, and will bring no charges against Al Gore…a not unexpected result following a three-year delay in the inquiry into the masseuse’s complaint.

7 thoughts on “Al Gore, Bill Cosby and the Ethics of Flawed Messengers

  1. As I said before, when the first story was smothered, I first thought, “Well this makes the divorce make sense. Why else get divorced after 40 years?” Then I thought, “Guess not.”

    Now, it’s “Guess so.” again, though I feel myself resisting this story since the other one was killed. I think I expect this one to turn out to be bogus, too, somehow, another bit of cognitive dissonance, perhaps.

  2. The allegations about Gore sadden me, more so if they are true. I worked closely with him (about 20 hours a week in small meetings, sometimes one-on-one, in 1993-1995, and occasionally from 1995-1999. I know that the man I worked with was honest, decent, considerate, friendly, open, self-effacing, brilliant, and funny.

    It’s nine years since I’ve seen Gore, and 15 since I spent a lot of time with him. I never knew anything about his sexual preferences, but he seemed to be genuinely in love with Tipper, talked about her a lot, bragged about her accomplishments. Of course one never knows what’s going on in somebody else’s marriage. But the man I knew was a decent guy.

    • A decent guy laboring under an increasingly uncontrollable fetish, perhaps. If you ethics alarm doesn’t go off when you are physically intimidating a young woman who came to your room trusting your sense of honor and reputation, something is seriously wrong.

    • Very sad. I can’t understand the glee over this by the conservative media. Don’t they know that when a major figure loses public regard like this, it effects everyone, all parties, all leaders? A wound to the civic health of the country.

  3. There’s no proof any of it happened, so speculating on what led Gore to do it is groundless.

    Likewise, why would Gore have to consider his every action based on how well it would reflect on his unsought and unnecessary media-ized role as The Global Warming Guy? People who actually understand the topic don’t fixate on Gore, only those who try to dismiss the topic based on ego instead of evidence do so (i.e. the well-chewed bone “global warming isn’t real because Al Gore’s house”). That school of thought is beyond reason or encouragement. Even if these cases HAD been true, and hadn’t disintegrated, it would have changed nothing, because in the end one side is interested in evidentiary proof and the other has just personality-based defamation and sarcasm.

    • There is some proof: three women making allegations is evidence, it just isn’t conclusive evidence. The fact that the Portland police didn’t follow their own procedures and let the allegation against Gore slide sure helped make sure there wasn’t “proof.” Experience tells me that when three masseuses make similar claims about abuse, something happened that shouldn’t. Fairness dictates that I try to put that behind me. Al is officially innocent.

      Still, he gave credibility to the climate change issue based on his stature, despite the fact that Gore doesn’t really understand the science and allowed a lot of whoppers in his film. Saying “one side is interested in evidentiary proof and the other has just personality-based defamation and sarcasm” is itself unethical argument. The evidentiary proof has been shamelessly hyped (by Gore, as well as others) on the questions of how much the globe is warming, how long it will continue to warm, what are all the factors involved, how and if it can be changed, slowed or stopped, and whether it’s worth the likely costs. Insisting on more than name calling (“Deniers!”) for policy-makers and columnists who couldn’t read a hockey-stick chart if their life depended on it is hardly defamation and sarcasm.

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