In the past I have been very critical of The New York Times’ current writer of its “The Ethicist” column, but there is no denying that Chuck Klosterman knows how to make an apology. Indeed, responding to a sensitive situation, he may have offered the most exemplary apology I have ever heard or read.
“A Typical Son” is a perceptive and moving blog that documents the life experiences of a young boy with Down Syndrome and his parents. His mother occasionally posted an open letter to Mr. Klosterman on the blog, citing his multiple uses of the words “retard” and “retarded” in various published works (Chuck was a film and TV reviewer prior to “The Ethicist” gig) over the past decade. She wrote in part…
“…Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word “retarded” (along with all mutations of the word)… My question to you: Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable? I am particularly interested because you, Chuck Klosterman, are The Ethicist for the New York Times” and the author of the following [examples of denigrating or mocking references to the mentally handicapped]…. Mr. Klosterman, you appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities. You are not using the word in an “I don’t mean it like that way…” sort of ignorance which I think would be much easier to redress. You are using the word in a “Those people are exactly who I am talking about” way.
Please enlighten me: What are the ethics of using the R-word? I am the mother of a seven-year-old son who has Down syndrome. I believe your response to my question could make all the difference in the world.”
“I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.
I should not have used “retard” pejoratively. It was immature, hurtful, and thoughtless. I have no justification for my actions. I realize the books that contain those sentiments were published over 10 years ago, but that is no excuse; I was an adult when I wrote them and I knew what I was doing. I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed. I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I’m truly sorry.
Feel free to re-post this message on your web site. I deserve the criticism I am receiving, and I want other people to know that I realize I was wrong. I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities…I have done something bad, so help me do something good.
Again, I apologize — and not just to you and your son, but to anyone else who was hurt by this.– Chuck Klosterman”
On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, this is not only a #1…
“An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness”
…but a Super #1, as fine and exemplary an example of an ideal apology as I can imagine.
For those inclined to be cynical, one could view the apology and the generous charitable gift as necessary livelihood insurance. As “The Ethicist,” Klosterman knows that his credibility is potentially undercut by his past writings, and that distancing himself from them and condemning them was both prudent and necessary. He must recognize that as the writer of a high-profile ethics column, he must now embrace far higher standards of personal and professional conduct and comportment than he needed to as a snarky reviewer of “Pootie Tang.” Never mind. Put that cynicism aside. “The Ethicist” needed to apologize, did so courageously, openly, generously and perfectly, and provided a shining example for us all.
Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” isn’t always right, but neither am I. Ethics is tough. He proved that he is man worthy of the title—a role model, a teacher, and and an Ethics Hero.
Well done, sir. You have my respect and admiration, and I’m sorry I doubted you.
[ Addendum: Someone is bound to bring up this post, so I may as well. In it, I state my objections to all organized efforts to ban the use of politically incorrect words, many of them words that I would never use, including slurs. I do not support efforts to censor private or public speech by mob veto. People should enjoy the full freedom of expression, and to accept the social consequences that come with the misuse of it. My conclusion, which I stand by today:
“…Stop banning words and thoughts, ugly or otherwise. Teach people to be civil, to respect each other and to treat fellow Americans with kindness and tolerance, but let people express themselves as they choose, as long as they aren’t hurting anybody or doing any harm. Trying to control thoughts and speech by banning words, ideas, sentences, insults, poetry, jokes, opinions, stories, history, books, plays and movies is causing harm, and must not be be tolerated. Don’t tell me, or anyone else, what to think or say in private, and leave my vocabulary alone. I don’t trust the word police to stop at “retarded.” I don’t trust them to stop at all, because they are never satisfied until everyone thinks just like they do.”
Criticizing a writer or speaker on his or her public statements or published works is always fair, however.]
Pointer: T Bird
Source: A typical son