Comment Of The Day: Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/1/17: …A Sarcastic Cop

The news item involved a Georgia traffic cop being fired for a dash-cam video showing him sarcastically telling  a DUI motorist who was resisting his requests on the grounds that she had seen videos of police shooting unarmed motorists, “But you’re not black! Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah, we only kill black people, right?”

My post took the position that in the current environment for police departments, the officer had to be fired despite hsi obvious intent. Esteemed long-time commenter Charles Green articulated the opposing view, which I must admit is more ethical than mine on its face. I wonder if it is realistic, but I’m thinking, Charlie, I’m thinking.

Here is Charles Green‘s Comment of the Day on the post, Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/1/17: Richard Simmons, Stilettos, A Sarcastic Cop:

Regarding the sarcastic cop: as I’ve said many times in this column, I think comments have to be understood in context. This is no different.

As you note, it was obvious from the context what he meant. I’ve made the point numerous times about “black lives matter,” and about how the same words when uttered by black people have different meanings when uttered by white people.

I think this is the same. If it was obvious what he meant, then why should we defend the police department for bowing to perceived PC implications? The department should back him up and make an intelligent, forceful statement about how cops are required to make on-the-spot judgments about the individual in front of them, and not be slaves to the perception outside.

I wouldn’t even have fired him, much less go after him to make an example. By that logic, all the statues should come down (which I don’t agree with either).

25 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/1/17: …A Sarcastic Cop

  1. Charles, I’ve been saving these two comments since I knew I would be republishing your take as a COTD.

    1. In the HLN coverage of this, the reporters gave no hint that the comment was intended as anything but fact. They gave the audience their “isn’t it horrible that this could happen in America?” look and tone. Then they played the department’s formal statement, which similarly would have been appropriate if the officer had advocated lynching.

    Question: isn’t the fact that public is going to get the story filtered through this spin part of the context that the police ignore at their peril?

    2. We have frequently debated the news media taking comments by Donald Trump out of context and represented deliberate hyperbole and sarcasm as being intended literally.(“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick –if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know ” was condemned as a call for people to shoot Hillary, for example. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook sent an email saying, “This is simple—what Trump is saying is dangerous. A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”)

    In an environment when partisans and activists deliberately interpret statements to mean whatever is most damaging and whatever fits their agenda needs, can your reasonable and fair approach be responsible and competent too?

    • Jack, I agree with you. Deliberate misrepresentation by taking things out of context is a scourge, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re coming from. Bad is bad, ever has been, ever will. I guess all people like you and I can do is shine the spotlight on it when it happens. I appreciate the attention you’ve given this one.

    • I think the balance here, on whether or not pressuring the officer to retire is ethical or not isn’t just about the appearance of race-based force application communicated to the African American community as well as the greater community, but also whether or not sarcasm is an acceptable communication device between authorities and citizens during interactions.

      There’s a sliding scale, I think, where given an extremely volatile situation, humor, IS a viable tool in the hands of an officer to defuse tense situations, and that sarcasm is ultimately a humor tactic. BUT, that being said, at some point on that scale, it is unprofessional, and given, I think, MOST situations involving authorities and citizens, it is unprofessional.

      Now, depending on where this particular Sarcasm falls on the “appropriate sarcasm by an authority scale”, COMBINED with the appearance of race-based force application…I think the officer IS right on the line, trending on the side of the line that makes it appropriate to insist on his resignation.

      But even there I’m not sure. I am sure that it involves more than just appearances with the African American community.

      • Very incisive. I’m inclined to agree: the use of sarcasm by authority figures in their authoritative capacity is rarely appropriate or professional, since it interferes with their ability to communicate reliably. Neither the authority nor who they are talking to can be counted on to convey or receive the message as intended. The fact that in this case it was recognized as sarcasm by all participants doesn’t make it a good idea. By the same token, it’s unwise to be sarcastic towards authority figures.

      • I have to agree with tex here. In this context, despite the obvious sarcasm, the remark was incredibly inappropriate and likely to escalate a situation where the driver already felt uncomfortable and nervous. I understand he meant it to defuse the situation and make her feel more comfortable, but that only adds to the problem for me; why would he think such words would have that effect? Given that he also knew he was on camera, he should have also known that anything he said might become a matter of public record, and that any kind of controversial statement about police relationships with the black community would spread far and wide. The quip would have been incompetent even without the camera, but the presence of the camera makes it especially incompetent.

  2. Well said. Political correctness sets up dilemmas for every day conversations that make verbal interactions dangerous to all. The cliché is that political correctness tramples on rights to free-speech, as if the potential loss were merely expressive. No, the real issue is that in mandating the filtering of our public discourse, political correctness in fact defeats its own stated goals. Conversation ends up being cut short.

  3. The problem with this is it’s unethical to judge people based on comments taken completely out of context.

    Here are a few recent comments from this website; if you chose to cherry pick these out of their broader context you could easily fall off the ethical rails and demonize the writer and destroy their life.

    “I think that that’s the idea behind shooting them. You address the problem without wasting too much time.”

    “That’s a way of reducing the surplus population; shoot the criminal looters and allow the non-criminals that didn’t follow evacuation orders to die too, It’s almost like getting a two-for-one.”

    “If it’s a choice between save the drowning person over here, or stop the looter over there, you can shoot the looter, then go help the drowner; both problems solved.”

    “Generally if one looter is shot, killed or not, that will stem the looting.”

    …and of course this one that started this discussion…

    “But you’re not black! Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah, we only kill black people, right?”

    These comments taken in context are NOT immoral comments, they’re not racist, they’re not hateful, etc, etc. however those that either don’t “get it” or are purposely taking them out of context because they have an agenda are what’s screw it’s original meaning. It’s not the statements taken in context that are wrong, it’s the interruption of the statements taken out of context that are wrong and it’s unethical to encourage this behavior by bowing to the likes of irrational social justice warriors that intimidate, smear, demonize, or destroy the “writers” because of their ignorance or agenda motives.

    We should start a new political movement…

    Comment Context Matters! (CCM)

  4. I have to wonder what touchstone allows one (anyone, not taking a position here) to distinguish between the “sincerity vs. sarcasm” of: (1) prof saying “kill the Trumpsters”, and (2) cop saying “kill the blacks.” Both are a priori crazy in vacuo, so it’s ONLY context that distinguishes. Yes/no?

    • Sarcasm requires nuance, irony and humor. Tone is everything. Since the purpose is to say the opposite of what you mean to convey what you mean, it has important and identifiable qualities. “I was being sarcastic” is transparent excuse for outrageous statements that lack the context or delivery to make them plausible sarcasm in any way. Otherwise, anyone could claim anything they say was sarcasm. True, there are people on the autism spectrum who do not get sarcasm and view the professor and the cop’s statements as indistinguishable. That’s a problem. For them.

  5. Sarcasm implies a malicious intent, doesn’t it? The policeman was engaging in irony. But also satire.

    Sarcasm means, literally, ‘to bite the lips in rage’. It comes from the Greek ‘sarkasmos’ and ‘sarkazein’ from ‘sarz’ (σαρζ) which is usually translated in the NT as ‘flesh’.

    If I can be of additional help just let me know!

      • Alizia was caught by an etymological fallacy. Whether or not the Greeks considered the word to describe something malicious doesn’t mean that’s what the word means today.

        • The problem with that assertion is that up until recently most literate people had Latin and also Greek and would know the roots of the words they used.

          If I understand what you are saying you would seem to defend the lack of rigor that would cause people to fail to understand or appreciate the subtle differences between words. That comes about though lack of literacy though.

          You are right though: people use language more loosely and with less precision.

          When we do finally set up the Desert Reeducation Camps this will change though. 😉

      • Irony and sarcasm by definition are not the same.

        By definition sarcasm tends to be biting and malicious, and this is indicated in the very etymology of the word: biting into the flesh. The essence of sarcasm is generally understod as a form of giving pain through biting sarcasm. The officer was not giving such pain to anyone, and not to the drunk lady. He was being ironic and he was satirizing the events he was speaking about.

        Sarcasm as it is generally understood is therefor a sign of maliciousness, even if it is light maliciousness. Sarcasm is generally understod, and interpreted, to be ‘hostility masquerading as humor’. So there again is the ‘hostile’ element related to ‘biting’.

        I suggested that the policeman was being ironic and satirizing and not sarcastic. In what I previously wrote I was trying to draw a contrast between irony and sarcasm.

        I can see that one could be lightly and humorously sarcastic as well as violently and mean-spiritedly ironic though…

            • Def #1: Sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” The cop was saying cops only shot blacks to mean “of course we don’t, but that’s how we are portrayed.” That’s sarcasm…and irony.

              Def #2: “remarks that mean the opposite of what they say, made to criticize someone or something in a way that is amusing to others but annoying to the person criticized.

              That’s clearly what the cops remark was.

              • I will agree that there was a sarcastic element in his statement but that it was largely ironical. If this is so then I am mostly right and you are only somewhat wrong which seems a fair compromise. 🙂

  6. Alizia gets my vote on her point.

    But from a different angle, Jack needn’t invoke (however correctly) “autism spectrum” (ASD) to ilustrate the point I (obviously?) had in mind about “context”. Namely, the context of the listener, not only the speaker. For, viewing the cop and prof, absent THEIR context (say, call them speaker A and B, without any other characteristic to them, such as their occupation), could EITHER be reasonably called EITHER sincere or sarcastic (or other of Alizia’s traits) depending on the “political/partisan spectrum” position of the auditor.

    • Nope. Sarcasm and irony are definable evident, and if they aren’t, they may be attempted sarcasm or irony, but they that’s life incompetence. If you can’t drive, don’t. If yu can’t tell a joke, stay away from open mike night. If you can’t deliver sarcasm so the meaning is clear to those who are not sarcasm challenged (an objective standard), it’s your problem. If you can’t identify competent sarcasm, then it’s YOUR problem, not the sarcasm-weilder, unless he or she had notice that the listener was so disabled.

  7. Maybe there’s a nub of an explanation here.

    Namely, my immediate kneejerk reaction was that BOTH prof and cop were spouting “obvious outrageous nonsense (or sarcasm, whatever), of the sort nobody would attribute sincerity to them, hence not worth wasting breath on.”

    But then, others in the media (both alt-right and moonbat-left) decided to make more than a tempest in at teapot out of them, hence you thought to cast an ethics on the phenomena.


    • This seems an important point. I quote here from a book I am now reading to help me better understand ‘the American context’ (I am originally from Venezuela). (The book is: ‘A War for the Soul of America’ and the chapter has to do with higher education, what sort of merials are necessary to study, and how the culture wars entered in):

      “Trendiness aside, the new forms of thought that dominated academic interchange [French critical theory, et cetera], whether spoken in a French dialect or not, were often insightful. Literary criticism, for instance, was rejuvenated by persuasive theories about the ways text, meaning, and even language are specific to circumstance. Such theorizing went beyond Marxist critic Fredric Jameson’s famous imperative to “always historicize!” Even within a given historical context, multiple meanings could be extracted from any text based on who was doing the reading and for what purposes. “The only way that we can hope to interpret a literary work,” explained renowned literary theorist Stanley Fish, “is by knowing the vantage from which we perform the act of interpretation—in contemporary parlance, where we’re coming from.”

      It would seem then that this is just one more manifestation of a culture-wide ‘will not to understand’ or a ‘will to misunderstand’. But it also is an issue that touches on ‘interpretation’. In the present dispensation, or so it seems, the hearer makes him or her self an active agent and interoposes into a text what he desires. Isn’t this related to the observation that ‘people hear what they want to hear?’ and are *offended* when they want to be offended? If so, it implies that getting offended is an active decision that one makes. To get offended is therefor a sort of statement.

      One has to listen to the recording and then make an interpretation. It is not as transparent as it seems. It is not in fact ‘clear’ what he said/meant. It is in its way obscure. What is not obscure is that what he said in the context of a police stop makes it, obviously, ‘problematic’. But it is the listener, the hearer, that is required to bend it in a specific direction.

      This posits subjectivity and that if enough people inject their specific will and intentionality into it, they can make it mean what they want it to mean, and this is independent of the will and intention of the one who said it.

      My sense is that there is an ideological war going on (in our culture) but it is also a war-of-wills. I say that it is ‘meta-political’ and is deeply tied up with power-issues. The surface dialogue may be thus-and-such, but underneath it all is a very concrete power-struggle. I have certainly been influenced by my reading of Nietzsche in this. But I do not see an alternative. The underlying issue always seems to resolve into issues of power.

      He who defines what this officer said, or the way he said it, or the context, as ‘bad’ and ‘punishable’, and he who succeeds in doing the man harm, wins. I would suggest it is almost, but not quite, as simple as that.

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