The Ethical Duty To Correct Stupidity

The Martin Luther King Memorial was unveiled without the commission responsible for it bothering to fix what has been almost unanimously condemned as an embarrassing mistake, a rephrased, out-of-context quote on the sculpture base (“I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness”) that misrepresents Dr. King’s career and was also something he never said. This is inexcusable, but at least the boob who unilaterally made the decision spelled “righteousness” correctly. The sign above is emblematic of a different ethical problem, the widespread abdication of the shared obligation to speak up when one sees someone else making a really stupid mistake.

This was a sign-making error, but it was not merely the responsibility of the sign-maker. Any guesses how many people must have seen that the word “South” was misspelled–mangled, in fact—between the time when the word was first misprinted and the sign was mounted on the New Hampshire highway where it stands today? My guess would be at least twenty, probably many more. It was manufactured, transported and mounted, and we are supposed to believe that nobody involved noticed, or knew how to spell South? I think almost everybody noticed, and just shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s not my mistake. Maybe they wanted it that way.”

Preventing an unequivocal blunder you see happening in front of your eyes, or at least making the effort, is a duty, whether it is calling attention to an embarrassingly misspelled word on a permanent sign going up over a highway, or telling the head of Netflix that splitting the company’s services off from each other is suicide, or telling Robert E. Lee that Pickett’s Charge is going to lose the war. Sometimes it’s easier and requires less courage than other times, but the duty is the same. The untold misery and waste that have resulted through the ages from stupid, stupid and obvious mistakes that might never have happened if the right person had spoken up in a timely manner and said, “What??? For gods, sake look at what you’re doing!!!” is tragic and incalculable. The mistake on New Hampshire highway sign makes the state look foolish, but at least isn’t getting anyone killed.

I hope New Hampshire leaves the sign up as a lasting reminder of this principle, and of what happens when people involved in a job, project or task just don’t give a damn. Every supervisor, manager and leader needs to tell those who follow his or her directives that knowingly letting someone else make a mistake that affects or reflects upon the organization, or that does tangible harm, is a breach of responsibility, loyalty, competence and diligence.

At least they didn’t misspell “Contoocook.”

Or did they?

11 thoughts on “The Ethical Duty To Correct Stupidity

  1. At the same time… I can’t help but think that a lot of the people in a position of power who would to something so stupid… are just the sort who would retaliate against you for making them look bad. I realize it’s a non-ethical consideration, but I think in the current climate a lot of people would rather stay quiet and “just follow orders” than be added to the legions of the unemployed. I admit, if I was in that position, and it was just my livelihood at stake, I’d grow a pair and speak up. But if I had a family to support… well, let’s just say that pair would shrivel up damn quick.

  2. Guess you have to pick and choose… I remember telling my son that he should stop correcting his teachers’ grammar, no matter how much it drove him crazy. Reason #1: Public embarrassment of a teacher or other adult is generally bad manners, even if you’re right. Reason #2: It certainly won’t endear you to that teacher. Reason #3: If the teacher is using bad grammar and doesn’t know it, your correction won’t send him/her to Strunk’s to correct an obvious defect in his/her understanding of correct English usage.

    On the other hand, occasionally one may be faced with a “stupidity correction” that has potentially vital and serious importance. In such cases, job on the line or not, I hope I would have the courage to explain, vociferously, that I think it’s stupid, and why.

  3. This sort of thing is often expressed as SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) or CEFGW (Close Enough For Government Work). In older days, it was described as “bureaucratic mentality”. It all amounts to the same thing: Collect a paycheck for mediocre work… and have a few beers afterward on your ill-gotten gains.

    What have you got against Robert E. Lee, Jack??

  4. Lee?
    1. He was a traitor.
    2. He was directly responsible for lengthening the war and costing the lives of many thousands.
    3. He used men and lives like they were waste paper.
    4. He fought for a cause he said he didn’t support or believe in, and din’t have to.
    5. He was a great leader, but over-rated as a military strategist. If he had listened to Longstreet, he would have won at Gettysburg.

  5. 1. He made an open choice between the United States and the new nation of which his state had declared for. He then resigned his commission upfront. No treason that I can see.

    2. He continually fought down and outgeneralled invading armies that often outnumbered his own forces by half again to more than twice his own strength. If he lengthened the war, it was because of his dedication and superior generalship. To have done less WOULD have been treason.

    3. Are you sure you’re not talking about his prime opponent here? They didn’t call him “Grant the Butcher” for nothing! The war was bloody by the nature of the new weaponry that had come into play.

    4. His first loyalty was to his home state of Virginia. Many Southerners had qualms about leaving the Union. Yet, the idea of fighting against friends and neighbors in mortal combat was not something they could easily come to terms with, naturally enough. Of course, the war DID split families and states… with tragedies and scars that lasted for long after the conflict.

    5. There were a number of excuses one could make for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg… and some of them bear note. But when his last effort failed on the third day- and when his tattered divisions returned after the attack on the Union center- Lee did not hide away in his tent. He was there to meet them and apologize to them for sending them into battle as he had. Longstreet was proven right. Lee’s generalship had failed in an uncharacteristic manner. But his CHARACTER itself shone through. It’s a big part of why he’s remembered so well by so many.

  6. Nah.
    1. His first duty is to his country, not his state. He declared for it, though it was fighting to preserve slavery.
    2. His over-all strategy was nuts. If he had just stayed in the Confederacy and made the Union attack, the South would have won.
    3. Grant was a butcher too. At least in his case, he had the men to get away with a war of attrition. Lee didn’t, and set them up for slaughter anyway.
    4. He fought against friends anyway, and lot fewer of them would have died if he had stuck with the North.
    5.I’ve given credit to Lee for never ducking the accountability for Pickett’s charge. But Longstreet was obviously right—the army should have set up a fortified position between Gettysburg and DC, and forced the Union to attack. Dumb.

  7. Okay. We’re into it, now!

    1. It went beyond the fact that Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy, although that would have been enough for most. It has to be noted that, in 1861, Virginia was one of those states which prized its unique heritage to the point of considering itself a nation within a nation. As a Texan, I understand this. Even among other states, the citizens of the time tended to think more strongly in terms of their states than they do today.

    2. For the most part, this is what Lee did… and quite successfully. His two attempts at invasion were not intended to conquer and occupy, but to draw the Army of the Potomac out of its Washington camps to defend the capital from isolation and then to seek the opportunity to defeat it in detail in the field. The first campaign (Antietam) failed through incredible bad luck when one of Lee’s dispatches was found by Union soldiers. At Gettysburg, Lee was let down by the initial failure to take Culp’s Hill (which would NEVER have happened had Jackson been there) , Hood’s getting lost while attempting to turn the Union left and Stuart’s inexplicable absence, which deprived Lee of reconnaisance information. Thus, underestimating the Union numbers, he gambled that the center was undermannned from re-enforcing the flanks. Thus did Pickett’s charge fail. There’s also the fact that Maryland was strongly pro-South and was held in the Union only by force of Northern arms.

    3. Unlike Grant, Lee was a master of battlefield manuever. He rarely resorted to frontal attack, but preferred to attract an enemy to his strongly held position, while using Jackson’s “foot cavalry”- some of the finest light infantry in history- to turn their flank by surprise attack. Chancellorsville was his hallmark. Unfortunately- and by more ill-luck- that battle resulted in Jackson’s death. As most historians will tell you, had Jackson been at Culp’s Hill on the first day of Gettysburg, the likely consequence would have been the piecemeal destruction of the Army of the Potomac… and the fall of Washington.

    4. Lee made the decision that he felt honor demanded of him. He can’t be blamed for being an extraordinarily fine commander. You might say the same of Erwin Rommel… though I would hardly compare the Confederate States of America with the Third Reich!

    5. As I mentioned earlier, Gettysburg was unintended as a battlefield, but it could have swiftly proven the South’s decisive victory. If Buford’s brigade had been driven off the hill by a determined divisional attack, the entire line at Cemetery Ridge would have been untenable. The Army of the Potomac was strung out along the road from Washington with no good place to mass and form a line of resistance. They would likely have been destroyed corps by corps.

    • 1. That wasn’t the U.S. Government’s position, and it’s beside the point: what Virginia was doing was ripping the country apart to preserve slavery. The cause was per se a human right outrage, and Lee knew it, and still joined the wrong side.
      2.I’m not saying that Lee’s plan couldn’t have succeeded; I’m say that an obvious and less risky plan would have succeeded, and it was recognized by many at the time.
      3. Historians say that, but there were a million things that could have changed the result in July of 1863. The point is that Lee, unlike Grant, didn’t have the resources to fight the way he liked to….with lots of casualties. (Bad generals blame luck.)
      4. I don’t doubt the sincerity of his decision, I just know it was a disastrous one. 625,000 deaths. How many would have been prevented if Lee had taken the command of Union forces? Half? 25%?
      5. But that begs the question. He had a better, safer strategy available, and passed on it.

      • Urrrggghhh.

        1. Virginia decided to join its sister Southern states for a number of reasons. But Lee was not a party to those decisions. He was a loyal Virginian who could not bring himself to fight against his home state.

        2. War involves risks. And a defensive war incurs a protracted war fought on one’s own home soil… with all the misery and destruction thus inherent. Again: The opportunity to lure out the North’s most massive Army and destroy it on a battlefield of Lee’s choosing was one that could not be missed if the South were to prevail against the enormous advantage the North enjoyed in population and industrial capacity. AND… the destruction of the Army of the Potomac would also bring about the capture of Washington and the U.S. government IF that victory were to occur north of the capital. It would also bring Maryland into the
        Confederacy.

        3. If General Ewell had followed his generals’ urgent advice to storm Culp’s Hill at the first encounter (something that Jackson would have done immediately without waiting for orders) it would not only have won the battle right then and there, but likely doomed the Union cause. But Ewell, in his first battle as a corps commander, froze. Wrong man at the wrong place in time. How often history hinges on that!

        4. No one could have predicted the disasterous effects that modern technology would play in that war. But Lee’s choice was based on loyalty. That it would come to war was already a forgone conclusion.

        5. Again: That “safer” strategy would have had the war lasting even longer. Lee was in a position where he had to continually fend off invading armies with their superior manpower and logistics. The South was also blockaded from foreign trade and resources necessary to the war effort. Numerous other factors. The point was that the destruction of the Army of the Potomac- not merely its defeat in numerous campaigns- had to be achieved. Note that Lee surrendered at Appomattox in preference to dispersing the army for a guerrilla movement.

  8. It was manufactured, transported and mounted, and we are supposed to believe that nobody involved noticed, or knew how to spell South? I think almost everybody noticed, and just shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s not my mistake. Maybe they wanted it that way.”

    I’m known on my project for pointing out valid problems. When the issues gets up to the decision maker, very often the answer is “Don’t fix it”. Even if 30 people pointed out the mistake, it only takes 1 person to keep it in place. What’s the grunt going to do do? Quit? Refuse to work and get fired?

    • That happens. I’ve seen it too. The sign, however, is usually the kind of thing that even an idiot will know that there will be hell to pay, because HIS boss will be made to look bad. Still, a lot of employees just assume the reaction you describe, and thus space shuttles disintegrate.

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