Ethics Alarms first promulgated the Niggardly Principles in the midst of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy. The Principles are named after the embarrassing controversy that roiled the Washington D.C. government more than a decade ago, in which a supervisor who used the good, old English word “niggardly” meaning “penurious or cheap” was fired for racial insensitivity after an African-American who hadn’t kept up on her Reader’s Digest “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power” complained that he had made a racist remark. The outcry in D.C. over this capitulation to ignorance was so great that the D.C. government reversed itself, though there remained some, like those supporting ESPN’s decision to fire Bretos for an innocent and appropriate application of the idiom ” a chink in the armor” today, who argued that the supervisor should have chosen his words so as not to offend those too ignorant and hair-trigger grievance-minded to comprehend them.
The First Niggardly Principle, therefore, is this:
“No one should be criticized or penalized because someone takes racial, ethnic, religious or other offense at their conduct or speech due to the ignorance, bias or misunderstanding of the offended party.”
A corollary of the FNP is that violating it unconscionably empowers the kind of people who should not be empowered in a free, fair and intelligent society: bullies, race-baiters, grievance police, censors of free expression, and the shamelessly ignorant. That was the theme of a disgraceful incident in which Hallmark pulled an “offensive”card because some African-Americans complained that the term “black hole”—as in Stephen Hawking and “Star Trek”—sounded too much like “black ho”—I’m not making this up— and was thus a racial slur. Hallmark’s craven capitulation was off the charts as First Niggardly Principle breaches go, but in some ways ESPN’s breach was worse; at least Hallmark didn’t pick an employee’s pockets and finger him as a closet racist.
There is also a Second Niggardly Principle, the exact phrasing of which Ethics Alarms reader Tim Levier and I continue to debate, which is this:
“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”
I believe that this would apply if, for example, Max Bretos was exonerated of blame in the “chink in the armor” episode and then went out of his way to use the phrase when analyzing the performances of Asian athletes. Then his choice of words would no longer be innocent, but defiant. As I wrote in the original post, “Why? Because a right to do harm doesn’t make it right to do harm.”
But it is unfair to apply the Second Niggardly Principle to someone without first giving him the benefit of the first, and this is what ESPN did to Max Bretos.