“House of Cards” Ethics: Zoe’s Unethical Tweet And The Right To Talk To Just One Person


At the risk of stirring up the incorrigible defenders of the vigilante Applebee’s waitress, I must again point out that using social media to make a private indiscretion a public disgrace is terrible, grossly unethical conduct that threatens our freedom, trust,privacy and quality of life. The fact that the practice is gaining acceptance as something to be feared and expected is a frightening cultural development, and we are all obligated to do what we can to condemn it and eradicate it before it becomes a toxic social norm.

The Netflix political drama “House of Cards” provided a perfect example of what is wrong with this despicable trend in its fourth episode.  Zoe Barnes, the ambitious, unethical reporter in league with Kevin Spacey’s deliciously diabolical House Majority Whip, has brought her newspaper’s editor to the point of apoplexy in a confrontation in his office.  Already considering leaving for greener pastures, the reporter goads her sputtering boss into calling her a misogynistic epithet that she senses is just on the tip of his tongue. “Go ahead,” she taunts. “Say it.”

“You’re a cunt,” he finally replies. Zoe whips out her smart phone and tweets this exchange to her thousands of followers. “Call me whatever you want, “she sneers, “but remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.”

Wrong—not unless the person you’re talking to is unethical, vindictive, has rejected the social conventions of private conversation and is consigning the Golden Rule to the cultural trash heap.

Calling an employee that name is legitimate grounds for any manager’s dismissal, though it doesn’t have to be. No one, however, should have his or her reputation permanently scarred by one ill-considered remark uttered in anger (and tactically provoked at that.) Each of us in a mutual supportive society has an obligation to mitigate each other’s mistakes, but the norm Zoe promotes is the opposite. She believes that we should expect those whom we interact with to magnify and publicize our worst moments so our words alienate as many people as possible and cause us the most extensive and widespread damage.

Advocating such destructive and merciless conduct is the equivalent of setting one’s own house on fire. Why would anyone not only choose to live in a community where this was considered appropriate behavior, but even worse, take steps to make their own community so unforgiving and heartless?

Once, communities in which “when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand” were correctly reviled as the creations of totalitarian regimes, where neighbors were forced to spy on neighbors, and where every suspicious comment spoken in confidence found its way to authorities. Now advocates for relentless e-shaming see the same phenomenon as virtuous. It isn’t virtuous. It is cruel, vindictive and unfair, and so prone to abuse that it should be condemned by consensus. In a free society, we must have the right to talk to just one person, even if we say something awful.


Source: NY Times

Graphic: ABC News



19 thoughts on ““House of Cards” Ethics: Zoe’s Unethical Tweet And The Right To Talk To Just One Person

  1. I’ll be that virtually all of the people indulge in such behavior, and/or support it in the abstract, would seriously object to being the OBJECT of such behavior.

    Yes, truly a violation of the golden rule.

  2. Reblogged this on SocialADAMANTIUM and commented:
    I would argue that this behavior is a direct result of the birth of social media as a communications outlet to the masses.

    Do you think what Zoe, or the Applebee’s waitress, did was unethical or was it justified? Sound off below!

  3. Petty gossip and finger-pointing is the fodder of local current affairs shows, magazines and newspapers – it seems arbitrary that it has become popular on Twitter and social media, not a big shift. If lies are spread about someone, or about a company, that is unethical and should be discouraged, but I do not see the problem with sharing true stories and opinions that shame people/companies who have made mistakes or act in unethical ways. It’s a counter-balance to the power that employees have over employers, or that companies have over consumers. Having your conduct called into question often can usually be smoothed over with appropriate actions and apologies. If you are slandered or harassed you can take legal action.

    • We’re not talking about companies or organizational conduct—then e-shaming can be productive. Nor are we talking about lies.

      People and companies are not the same thing. The editor in the HOC episode was engaged in uncivil and demeaning personal conduct in a professional setting.

      Having your bad conduct condemned and exposed to thousands or millions is unfair because such strangers have no context or countervailing information. It is by definition a distortion: we are not defined by our single worst misjudgments and poor choices, and should not be, except in the most extreme of circumstances.

    • Because everybody secretly wants to BE Big Brother. What they forget is that if everybody is Big Brother, there are always more of them working against you than for you. If you get to be BB once for every 20 times you’re Winston or Julia, it’s a bad, bad deal.

  4. “Give thy thoughts no tongue,” wrote Shakespeare. In this world that goes triple and quadruple. I’m not going to defend this behavior, it’s clearly subject to abuse, BUT, in the interest of further (hopefully enlightening) discussion, I’d be interested in how you balance the interests set forth in your post against the principle that every individual is finally accountable for his/her own actions and expressions. If you know that what you are saying is something that could be challenged or could offend, isn’t it your responsibility to find a better way to say it if possible? If you are in a position where one wrong remark could be fatal and you know it, isn’t it your responsibility to make sure that one remark doesn’t get out there? If you are in public where any passerby can see you or whip out their cameraphone and take a picture, isn’t it on you to act appropriately for being in public? If your reputation is on the line every day, isn’t it your responsibility to live up to it? By the way, I believe the converse is true and it’s also on the listener and the observer to be appropriate and ethical and NOT pass on private conversations when no good can come of it and NOT take pictures for the express purpose of embarassing the subject. But in the end, aren’t all of us primarily responsible for ourselves?

    • Sure. But at the point when everything can offend somebody, and any statement may be taped, tweeted or broadcast, the only safe alternative is not to speak, write or think at all. If the penalty for error becomes so terrible and interminable that it is no longer worth taking the risk of communicating, public discourse, honesty and democracy are dead.

      People like Ms. Wright and Zoe are shame-bullies. We should avoid hurtful conduct because its hurtful, bot because there are vigilante’s under every rock.

  5. powerful tool — i like it when children are threaten by other children or adults… Adult to Adult conversation flagging seems petty and vindictive

  6. What are the ethics of hijacking this thread to urge everyone to skip this pale imitation entirely and instead watch the original UK version of House of Cards starring Ian Richardson?

  7. Is there some meaning of journalistic integrity which is the opposite of the literal meaning I’m just unaware of? All I can see in this article and the comments is that people don’t think they should be held accountable for their actions. The golden rule argument is just that you wouldn’t want people exposing your bad behavior so they shouldn’t do it to you right? I don’t see how sexism is OK as long as it’s in private. Zoe has, in fact, more integrity than anyone arguing here that she has none.
    Oh, and I don’t think it has anything to do with social media either. She could have published his statements on paper, but it wouldn’t be any worse or better in terms of integrity. The difference is that with the ease of use and ease of access, social media will expose you to a lot more people a lot faster.

    • Wrong. Conversations between two people in private are undertaken with the understanding that both can speak candidly and in unfiltered form without details of taht conversation being shared with strangers, and the Golden Rule is exactly the standard to used.Zoe egged on her boss to use an ugly term, essentially daring him to say it, then used the word as a form of personal denigration to strangers who were not in the conversation and had no right or reason to know the context of the conversation. Maybe he had used the term “cunt” in previous conversations with her and had her explicit or implied consent. There is no evidence he routinely referred to all women as cunts, just her, and just in this situation, in which there was some provocation. “The meanings that refer to a woman and a contemptible person are used with disparaging intent and are perceived as highly insulting and demeaning” says one definition. Well, she was behaving like a contempible person, and in fact her subsequent conduct showed that she in fact was one. In broadcasting his use of that description, she did not disclose her precipitating conduct, misleading her twitter audience into believeing that he was simply sexist, rather than using the term in a heated discussion, and with some prompting. How does that constitute a fair result? What business is it of the world’s what I say to a close associate in private? This exactly like Alec Baldwin’s daughter setting out to harm him by publiciizng their argument in which he was uncivil and excessively harsh. That’s a vindictive betrayal, and it is nothing better.

      You are seriously suggesting that every private exchange is fair game to be shared with strangers in a manner that is designed to focus enmity to a party to the discussion, out of context and with inadequate infirmation, as a form of vengeance and intentional harm? You actually think it is reasonable to hold the threat of mass circulation over every argument, using Twitter as a weapon? Stunning, and disgusting. I would never trust someone who couldn’t be relied upon to keep a private argument discreet at least to the extent of not divulging it beyond close allies. I would never hire such a person, not have a frank discussion with them. I wrote: Each of us in a mutual supportive society has an obligation to mitigate each other’s mistakes, but the norm Zoe promotes is the opposite. She believes that we should expect those whom we interact with to magnify and publicize our worst moments so our words alienate as many people as possible and cause us the most extensive and widespread damage.

      You think this is acceptable behavior, which makes you worse than Zoe: I doubt she thought what she was doing was fair; she just knew it was effective in harming an adversary. Calling her actions “integrity” shows you don’t know the meaning of the word. I have your email; your understanding is that I will not divulge it. If I were Zoe, or YOU, I could justify sending this self-indicting comment of yours to 1900 followers on twitter with your e-mail attached, just to embarrass you and for no other reason, and I would defend that betrayal of trust because “you deserved it.” Nice.

      “I don’t see how sexism is OK as long as it’s in private” shows the depth of your ethical confusion. Calling a woman an ugly misogynist word isn’t “OK,” but the offense is between them, not before the an epithet to one person in private is a materially different offense from one before an audience. She turned his act into something worse, for her own gain, and you call this “integrity.”

      You need an ethics intervention.

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