PREFACE: I have just returned from a crazy three day odyssey that had me lecturing on Massachusetts legal ethics in Boston, Washington, D.C. legal ethics in the nation’s capital, and, professional ethics, legal ethics and accounting ethics in Tucson, Arizona. Keeping pace with ethics developments was even more difficult than it usually is when I’m on the road, because I had almost no time in between flights, meetings and various hassles to get to a newspaper, surf the web, or watch TV. And my browser kept crashing.
I wrote the John Oliver post, frankly, as low-hanging fruit. His performance was vile and hateful, barely funny, self-indulgent, and disrespectful in a damaging way, and I didn’t think, and still don’t, that there should be much disagreement on that assessment. I expected the usual “lighten up,” “he was only joking “[he was NOT only joking], and “he has right to free speech” comments, because I always get those any time I point out that a comedian has been unfair and irresponsible. I did not expect,for the post to get more single day traffic than all but one previous Ethics Alarms entry, and so many comments, many of which with troubling social and political significance. I returned to my office to find more comments waiting for moderation than have ever been there at one time, and I apologize for that: I try to get them cleared withing hours if not minutes. Of course, a disproportionate number of them were garbled nonsense, or just invective with no point whatsoever. They didn’t make it.
I also had some tough calls, with repetitious comments that misrepresented the post, made irrelevant or factually mistaken assertions, and also were abusive. I fear that I may have been inconsistent, and perhaps less tolerant than usual, and I’m not referring to the occasional comment I allowed to be published just to show the kind of comments that weren’t being posted. The problem is that this site is a intended to be a colloquy, and poor quality comments just make the threads hard to read, and also undermine the site.
I may have to be more ruthless in moderating comments in the future. I’m thinking about it.
Ethics is all about processing new information. Here are some useful things I learned, or re-learned, from the reaction to the post, “Ethics Dunce: HBO’s John Oliver”….
1. Otherwise reasonable, fair, smart people really do think that Donald Trump justifies unethical conduct and that makes it okay.
This is just another version of what the New York Times did during the campaign, declaring that Trump uniquely justified the paper dropping all pretense of objectivity, and thus abandoning ethical journalism. Most mainstream news sources followed the Times’ lead (actually, they and the Times had been slanting coverage long before the Times announced that bias was the right way to go), but the Times is paying an especially steep price, as its subscriptions took a hard nosedive as a result. This prompted a strange and pathetic letter to readers from the publisher, promising in a post-election letter on Nov. 11 to “rededicate ourselves” to good journalism, while still claiming the Times “reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign.” After critics properly noted that the letter was necessary precisely because the Times had not been fair, the paper quietly edited that sentence out of the official version.
The many commenters who wrote in various ways that Donald Trump is a horrible person and should be insulted, denigrated and abused for the offensive [“racist, misogynist, xenophobe”] things he said during the campaign have no ethical legs to teeter on. There is no system of ethics that suggests that it is acceptable to verbally abuse and publicly denigrate a President-Elect because of past statements, and all of them point to the opposite conclusion, as do basic ethical values and principles.
Doing this is a Golden Rule breach. Nobody in Trump’s position would want to begin such a historic and crucial task being mocked and insulted. It is also an absolute breach of responsibility, fairness and citizenship. The tradition of always providing a honeymoon period in which the President Elect is treated as a symbol of our democracy and a rallying point for citizens to mend that bitterness of the political campaign is entirely positive, and satisfies common sense as well. Every American has a stake in seeing that our leaders make the nation stronger, more prosperous, safe and just. The simple symbolic act of support is necessary to maximize the chances of such success. Like it or not, Trump is President for four years. Undermining him now is like punching yourself in the face.
Finally, there is no utilitarian argument for not giving a new President this benefit. It can only make the nation more unified and strong, by allowing a new leader believe that the American people have his back. A period of respect for the office can help still irrational fears and prevent, or at least limit, embarrassing and expensive public tantrums like the anti-Trump demonstrations now going on.
In contrast, what good and substantive results are there to balance the harm, if the nation withholds from Trump the courtesy that has been extended to every other President? Name one. One. There isn’t one, and none of the commenters offered any. “As a natural born, taxpaying, U.S. citizen, I say Donald Trump is an lying scumbag sociopath, and I say to hell with him,” says one esteemed commenter. Great. It’s all emotion rationalizations from the Trump haters, no substance.
Here’s their list, about a third of the whole:
1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”
1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”
2. Ethics Estoppel, or “They’re Just as Bad”
2 A. Sicilian Ethics, or “They had it coming”
7. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
11.(a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
14. Self-validating Virtue
15. The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
24. A. Free Speech Confusion
27. The Victim’s Distortion
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good”
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense.”
50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
52. The Hippie’s License, or “If it feels good, do it!” (“It’s natural”)
54. The Joke Excuse, or “I was only kidding!”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
61. The Paranoid’s Blindness, or “It’s not me, it’s you.”
62. The Doomsday License
Look ’em up. Every single alleged defense of John Oliver has used one or more of these. There is no ethical argument for denigrating the nation’s next President before he takes office, and every ethical reason not to. The fact that so many people allow emotion and rationalizations to govern their reasoning at such times as this is why ethics skills and literacy is so important…and so elusive.
2. Most people don’t understand the Presidency or their own culture.
I assumed we all knew that the nation always puts negativity aside and gives a new President a positive, supporting beginning. That was naive, it seem. From the comments, I might as well have said that the moon was made of baba ganush. When I was researching this matter for a book long ago, I had scholarly texts explaining the phenomenon in every nook of my house. Okay, here is a footprint of the tradition, from Gallup: Since such polls were taken, no President-Elect, beginning with Eisenhower, was inaugurated with more than a 25% disapproval rate. Obama’s was 12%. TWELVE. T-W-E-L-V-E.
Got that? I’m directing my comments at the 20 or so commenters who wrote the equivalent of this comment from “Jenny”, one that I let through the garbage filter::
“Were you absent from this nation when President Obama was elected?”
See, these people (‘these people meaning angry, hyper-partisan, progressive and Democrats) have their own imaginary parallel US history, where President-Elect Obama was reviled by a racist nation from Day One. This has been repeated as a partisan Big Lie, so now people like “Jenny” believe it, and the news media repeats it. The imaginary denigration of the last President Elect justifies the actual denigration of this one!
Obama entered office with the second highest approval rating since WWII, slightly behind Jack Kennedy, whose treatment of women was about on par with Trump’s and whose father was a Nazi sympathizer (just putting things in perspective!). George W. Bush had the highest disapproval rating, but that figures, because Democrats were still telling everyone who would listen that he “stole the election.” Even then, 75% of those polled either approved of the new President Bush or had no opinion…in other words, they were willing to wait and see. Give him a chance. Be patriots. Be decent and fair, and treat him as they would want to be treated.
Gallup adds, in the commentary to their poll,
“In general, the American public rates all new presidents positively — all have received majority approval in their debut ratings — though Obama is clearly near the top of the list. The three presidents who took office after the death or resignation of their predecessors tended to start out with even greater public support, as the nation rallied around the new chief executive in times of crisis. These include Harry Truman in 1945 with an 87% approval rating, Lyndon Johnson with 78% in 1963, and Gerald Ford with 71% in 1974.”
Funny, I recall reading something about this tradition along those lines recently–oh, I remember! In the post!
I eagerly await the apologies from all of those who accused me of “making it up.”
3. New commenters here, more often than not, haven’t read the post, and don’t know what the blog is about.
They also think that that random, poorly written, sloppily considered, non substantive attacks and blanket assertions pass muster. They don’t.
4. No wonder the British tolerate the speech restrictions in their country.
They don’t even know about them, until they are put on trial for a tweet. More than one indignant Brit said I was making up the statement about their free speech limits,too. Here’s a neat and upsetting summary of how much free speech is valued in Great Britain.
The last paragraph:
“America and Britain might be divided by a piece of paper guaranteeing free speech—you have one, we don’t—but we’re united by a shared new generation of aspiring speech-policers. And in Britain, it has often been the demands of these informal groups of heresy-hunters that have coaxed the state to take action against eccentric or outrageous speech. How long can the First Amendment hold out against America’s budding new censors? How long before the U.S. joins the U.K. at the funeral of free speech?”
Could this rather existentialist concern have motivated some Americans to vote for Donald Trump? Nah. Trump voters were only out to tell women, blacks and immigrants that they don’t matter…..or so goes the current divisive narrative issuing from the Left.
5. People who are governed by bias assume that everyone else is.
It was stunning to see the number of commenters who concluded that I was a Trump supporter, a Trump voter or worse, a misogynist xenophobe racist because I pointed out that every President Elect deserves to begin his term like every other President: with the campaign relegated to history, and a leader facing daunting challenges having the support of a unified nation.