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?