Tom Angel was chief of staff for the Los Angeles County sheriff until emails he had sent to friends four years ago, prior to becoming the sheriff’s top aide, denigrating several different groups of minorities including Muslims, Catholics and Latinos surfaced in the media. Now Angel has resigned.
His boss, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, announced the departure in a statement posted to Facebook that called the messages “inappropriate and unprofessional.” That was fair.
Originally, the department defended Angel, saying in part,
“Although his judgment in this situation is of concern to members of the Sheriff’s Department, no one is more distressed about it than Chief Angel himself. His apologies for this uncharacteristic act have been profuse and sincere. Chief Angel’s decision-making and actions in his long prior career with the Sheriff’s Department and since his return in 2015 reveal more about his actual character and typical good judgment than the instances from four years prior currently reported in the media.”
It didn’t work, especially after Angel’s apology, quoted in the LA Times, was this:
“Anybody in the workplace unfortunately forwards emails from time to time that they probably shouldn’t have forwarded. I apologize if I offended anybody, but the intent was not for the public to have seen these jokes.”
Should that have been sufficient?
True, it’s a non-apology apology, a number 7 on the Apology Scale and anything higher than 4 is not good:
7. A forced or compelled [apology] in which the individual (or organization) apologizing may not sincerely believe that an apology is appropriate, but chooses to show the victim or victims of the act inspiring it that the individual responsible is humbling himself and being forced to admit wrongdoing by the society, the culture, legal authority, or an organization or group that the individual’s actions reflect upon or represent .
Yet it is refreshingly honest. Let’s say I get together with my very best friend from college, and we had marched arm in arm with protestors in the March on Washington. We have impeccable liberal credentials, but we both like raunchy, misogynist, ethnic and racial jokes about all genders, races, colors religions and creeds, including our own. We go into my lead-lined fallout shelter, haul out my Cone of Silence, and commence to amuse ourselves with our guilty pleasure, telling the most awful jokes we know, and laughing at their pure awfulness.
Is this a wrongful act?
Now let’s say that unbeknownst to me, my mad scientist neighbor has been using my property for secret experiments in surveillance, and has discovered a way to record anything said behind closed doors, even closed lead doors and cones of silence. He records our private–we thought—offensive joke orgy, and anonymously releases it to the Washington Post.
Should this undermine my credibility as an ethicist? Is that fair? Can I say in my “apology,” that I’m sorry if the jokes offended anyone, but they were between me and my friend, and are nobody else’s business?
I wrote about this issue—a lot—during the Donald Sterling Ethics Train Wreck in 2014. Sterling owned the Los Angeles Clippers and was about to be honored by the local NAACP, when his vicious, exploitive mistress taped some racially disparaging comments he made to her in his bedroom, and released them to the press. The NBA fined him and took his team away, the NAACP retracted his award, and Sterling became an instant pariah.
Was that fair? I wrote:
“His racism, if it remained locked in his mind and a personal, secret bias that he was capable of overcoming in his business and personal duties and transactions, is not unethical, any more than any conflict of interest that one is able to overcome is unethical. Ethics only comes into the equation when, for whatever reason, his bias becomes known to those he is biased against. Unless they freely assent to and waive his bias, while accepting that it will play no role in how Sterling will treat them and others like them, then he has to withdraw from the ownership and management of the team. Of course, such waiver and assent is impossible. His bias undermines trust by fans, journalists, players and NBA officials, and poses a public relations crisis for the sport. Sterling can claim, as I’m sure he will, that his comments were private and taken out of context, and that he is no racist….It doesn’t matter what he says. What matters is that his words make trusting him impossible, which means that he is untrustworthy. He has to go….Vile biases are our personal burdens; if we can’t banish or eliminate them, we are ethically obligated to make certain that they stay in our skulls, safe and harmless, because even the revelation that they exist causes harm to others. In law, keeping a dangerous animal on your property creates strict liability: if it gets loose, no matter how, you are liable for the harm it causes to others. Racist thoughts are like that too.”
This is essentially the principle that has to be applied to Angel, and would be applicable to me in the hypothetical. One can play around in private with taboos, such as ugly jokes and hateful statements, and they are ethically inert as long as they don’t hurt anyone. This however, is coming too close for comfort to the rationalization called “The Unethical Tree in the Forest”: if nobody knows about it or will ever find out, can an act be unethical? How do I know that I am not perpetrating bigotry by my bomb shelter session? How do I know the shared vile humor won’t become known, and hurt someone somehow? I don’t, of course.
Still, as I argued about at length, sometimes with myself, in 2014, I am uncomfortable with thought crime and expression taboos. If jokes involving bigotry and prejudice are shared in a context that doesn’t hurt anyone, what’s wrong with them? Laughter between friends is good.
Thus I come back to applying strict liability, as Ethics Alarms does in the Naked Teacher Principle Cases. Yes, there’s nothing unethical about plastering you naked booty all over the web, as long as your students don’t see then and begin thinking of you as a potential sex partner rather than a role model and authority figure. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with sharing jokes that don’t express your feelings about minorities, until they, and you are exposed. When that happens, you can’t expect sympathy.
Think of it as ethics sky-diving, running with the bulls or race car driving—high risk conduct that you know, or should know, might backfire.
Angel, like Sterling, had to go. How he worded his apology or pseudo-apology doesn’t matter.
Spark and Pointer: Fred