The news item about comedian Bob Newhart cancelling an appearance for the Catholic executives networking group Legatus under pressure from GLAAD is fascinating.
From the perspective of Ethics Alarms, it illustrates a peculiar phenomenon I experience often, where a prominent story seems to have been designed by the Ethics Gods specifically to combine and coalesce several issues that have been discussed here recently. For Bob’s travails neatly touch on the issues of pro-gay advocacy groups attempting to restrict expression they disagree with( The Phil Robertson-A&E Affair, Dec. 19), a comedian being pressured to alter the course of his comedy (Steve Martin’s Tweet Retreat, Dec. 23) and an entertainment figure being criticized for the activities of his audience (Mariah’s Dirty Money, Dec. 23). You would think I could analyze the Newhart controversy by just sticking my conclusions from those recent posts, plus some of the more illuminating reader comments, into my Ethics-O-Tron, and it would spit out the verdict promptly.
It doesn’t work that way, at least in this instance, and that prompts the other observation. In most ethics problems, the starting point is the question, “What’s going on here?”, which forces us to determine the factual and ethical context of the choices made by the participants. Here, the question can be framed several diverging ways, leading to different assessments of the ethics involved. Thus, asking “What’s going on here?” in the Bob Newhart Episode, we might get:
Answer A. A Catholic group is being harassed by GLAAD and other gay rights groups for its religious beliefs.
Ethics Verdict: The groups that attacked Newhart’s decision and drove him to cancel acted unethically.
Legatus is one of many Catholic organizations formed by pizza baron Tom Monaghan. which embraces the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. It is clear in its own self identification on its website: ” A networking and social group composed of CEOs, corporate presidents, managing partners and business owners, with their spouses, Legatus states in mission as “to study, live and spread the Catholic faith in our business, professional and personal lives.”
The official position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality is that it is a sin, and that marriage as only possible between one man and one women. As explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church in 2003:
“The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.“
Legatus members have a right to their beliefs, and the Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion as one pleases as among the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness that the government of the Unites States, and thus its citizens, are bound to respect. It is ethical for those seeking to defend gay rights to debate and contend publicly against the public statements and any political activities of religion-based groups, but actively interfering with their operation is an unethical breach of respect, tolerance, fairness and reciprocity. Threatening contractors like Newhart constitutes such interference.
Answer B. Newhart, a Catholic who in the past has championed the use of humor as essential to freedom of thought, took the expedient and cowardly way out of a controversy, abandoned his principles, capitulated to political correctness bullying, and showed himself to be a hypocrite.
Ethics Verdict: Newhart acted unethically.
Legatus is engaged in a lot more than just gay marriage issues, and much of its work is beneficial to communities and the poor. No one knows Newhart’s religious or political views—that his TV shows have on occasion dealt sympathetically with gay issues does not, as some have assumed, mean that he opposes his faith’s position on gay marriage. It would be reasonable and acceptable for a man like Newhart to agree to appear at a Legatus event to support its other works, or to just tell some jokes. After all, it was Newhart who said in a commencement speech,
“I’ve found that one other thing that humor does is it makes us free. That may seem like an odd conclusion, but as long as the tyrant cannot control the minds of free men, they remain free. Humor abounded behind the Iron Curtain and in POW camps. Humor is also our way of dealing with the inexplicable. We had an earthquake a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t more than three or four days later that I heard the first earthquake joke. Someone said, “The traffic is stopped, but the freeways are moving.” Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event over which we have no control and deal with it and then move on with our lives. It helps distinguish us from animals. No matter what hyenas sound like, they are not actually laughing. It also helps define our sanity. The schizophrenic has no sense of humor. His world is a constantly daunting, unfriendly place. The rational man is able to find humor in his. Erasmus wrote in Praise of Folly, “No society, no union in life could be either pleasant or lasting without me,” of course, meaning folly. People with a sense of humor tend to be less egocentric and more realistic in their view of the world and more humble in moments of success and less defeated in times of travail. I certainly don’t delude myself that there aren’t certainly more important things to do in life than make people laugh, but I can’t imagine anything that would bring me more joy.”
Never mind all that—it was just a speech. Newhart, like Steve Martin, caved on his expression of this supposedly vital principle and abandoned his faith the first time political correctness bullies started giving him dirty looks. Where’s Bob’s integrity?
Answer C. An 84-year old man decided to vary his retirement and bask in the warm glow of an appreciative audience for a check, as he has every right to do. Unexpectedly, it became a PR mess, and he has neither the interest, the patience nor the energy to sustain a fight when he thought he was just doing an honest job, as he has his entire professional life. He cancelled, saying, in essence, who needs this?
Ethics Verdict: Newhart acted ethically.
Newhart doesn’t seek or usually occupy the spotlight; most Americans under the age of 30 know him, if at all, as a bit player in the Will Farrell comedy “Elf,” itself a decade old. A public appearance unexpectedly became a lightning rod, and he chose not to take sides, and cancelled in a timely fashion (the event is in February), saying nothing else. This was his right, and age has its privileges. He can pass on the culture wars.
Those are framings that I think can be defended. Around the web, I’ve read conservative commentators arguing that what is really going on is part of the organized war on religion and capitalism by atheists, Move-On and George Soros.
Now that I’ve kept you in suspense, here is what I really think is going on here:
Legatus, a religious social group that has every right to exist, associate as it chooses, hold what beliefs it chooses and express those beliefs, hired a comedian to appear at their event. The comedian, who has no ethical obligation to select his audiences by their political, social or religious beliefs, agreed to come, presumably for a fee. Anti-Catholic, anti-corporate, but primarily pro-gay groups set out to bully a non-political, elderly performer into cancelling his appearance by insinuating in public that to do otherwise would indicate anti-gay bigotry. It would have been exemplary ethics if Newhart had
1) announced that he was completely behind gay rights and fully supportive, and because it appeared that his performing at the Legatus event would be taken as otherwise, he would withdraw, not because of the criticism, but because he agreed with it, and urged Legatus and the Catholic Church to at last reverse its centuries-old position on homosexuality, or
2) announced that he was going to appear as scheduled, because he objected to performers being made pawns in the political game. believed that all audiences had a right to be entertained whatever their beliefs, and rejected the efforts of any groups to harm their political adversaries by interfering with their legitimate business relations, or
3) simply said that he had made a commitment and would honor it, and that it was none of GLAAD’s business whom or what groups he told jokes for.
What Newhart did–withdraw from the event without comment—was reasonable given his circumstances and the fact that he did not ask to be enmeshed in this controversy and did not knowingly thrust himself in it.
A GLAAD rep says that he’s “proud of this one.” He shouldn’t be.