Longtime reader and commenter Neil Dorr chided me today for writing so much about the post-election media, political, and legal ethics breaches going on, and not as much on the types of topics I tended to cover on the old Ethics Scoreboard, now an archive of an earlier time when I thought a few posts a week could cover the topic of societal ethics. I was more innocent then, and I also had to depend on a webmaster: I posted more essays in the first year of Ethics Alarms than the entire output of the Ethics Scoreboard. Neil said he missed posts like the one about “the Lobster Hat”. I have to say, I don’t think there have been many posts likethe one about the lobster hat, which was one of my occasional “a day in Jack’s strange life” posts. I had forgotten about it completely. I tracked the decade old post down, however, and for Neil, and anyone else who is interested in lobster hats, here it is..
Today I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment that she was dreading, and while we were checking in with the receptionist, a large, rotund fellow with a long white beard walked in to do likewise. On his head was what appeared to be a large, red lobster…a hat of sorts, though not a very seasonable or practical one. It was spectacular, however, with two large claws that drooped down about eyebrow level, and an impressive tail in the back. If I were ordering this specimen at Jimmy’s Harborside in Boston, it would be about a four-pounder.
I was amused at this unexpected sight, and said to my wife, loud enough so Lobster-topped Santa could hear me, “See? You think you have medical problems. This poor guy has a lobster attached to his head!” To my surprise, the man turned sharply and looked at me with a furious glare, snorted, and walked out the door, clearly offended, exactly as if I had said, “Wow! That’s some harelip you have there!” or “Gee, where does a guy as fat as you buy suits?”
This makes no sense to me, and more than that, I think it’s unethical conduct. It is understandably rude to make personal comments to strangers, call attention to their oddities, or stare. But there is such a thing as implied consent. When someone wears, for example, a clown outfit, he or she is presumably doing so to attract attention, and those who indicate that they are taking notice should be relieved of the obligation to do so unobtrusively. Choosing to wear a red ball on the end of one’s nose, or Groucho glasses, or the old arrow-through-the head gag is the exact equivalent of wearing a sandwich board bearing the words, “Look at me! Notice me! Be amused!” Wearing these things and then appearing offended when others do as they have been asked is a bait-and-switch. It’s a dirty trick.
Now, this man had a lobster on his head in a doctor’s office. If it had been a psychiatrist’s office, I suppose, I might have thought twice about commenting on the lobster, but it wasn’t. Perhaps the plush red crustacean really was attached to his head, and he was having it removed. Or maybe the lobster hat is an emblem of his religion, and he takes it very seriously. Could it be that he didn’t know there was a lobster on his head, and someone had secretly replaced his real hat as a cruel joke? Any of these admittedly unlikely scenarios would have justified his negative reaction, but call me suspicious: I don’t believe it. This is a man who voluntarily appeared in public in provocative and mirth-inspiring head-gear and behaved as if I was a boor for mentioning it. His conduct was analogous to a woman who comes to work naked and asks indignantly, “What are you looking at?” I call foul. She knows damn well what I am looking at, and if she didn’t want me to look, she would have worn an overcoat.
Admittedly they won’t come into play very often, but just in case you are tempted to wear a lobster on your head in my presence, here are some simple ethical guidelines:
1. Don’t intentionally dress or act funny if you have no sense of humor. Wanting to both maintain dignity and privacy while wearing comic accessories is a conflict of interest.
2. If you do go out in public wearing a lobster (or reasonable facsimile, including cloth lobsters and crayfish), you have a duty to understand that it will be taken by many as an indication that you are seeking comment. Responding negatively to those who take it as such is the equivalent of denying an evident fact, and is therefore dishonest.
3. If, by some strange set of circumstances, the lobster on your head has a serious purpose, you have an ethical duty (the duty of candor) to so inform those who see you, either before or after they try to engage you in light-hearted banter. “I think you should know that I wear the lobster hat to honor my late brother, who was eaten by a rogue lobster 20 years ago today,” is always appropriate if true.
4. You have an obligation to learn your culture’s comic images so you will not publicly proclaim to others a degree of levity and openness that you do not in fact possess. Among those things that will attract light commentary or jest if displayed in public in the United States in 2007: stilts, hula skirts, medieval armor, orangutans, facial tattoos of the Three Stooges, codpieces, horse costumes, chicken suits, and “John Kerry in ’08” buttons.
Oh yes…and lobster hats.
Learn those four easy rules, and neither of us will embarrass ourselves.