The New York Times published a long and detailed account of what can and will happen if society allows its values and ethical norms to become distorted. It enters the world of Bizarro Ethics, where, like the fictional and allegedly comic planet of Bizarro World in old Superman comics, everything is backwards and inside out. In such a culture, I have explained here many times, being unethical is ethical, and being ethical is wrong. A black student set out to use an old social media post to destroy the reputation of a white classmate after she had been admitted to the college of her dreams. And he succeeded. The Times story is a cautionary tale of what is happening in our culture, but that’s not its objective. Its objective is to rationalize and justify what the black student did.
In 2016, when she was a freshman and 15-years old, Mimi Groves sent a three second video SnapChat message to some friends that said, “I can drive, nigger!” She has explained that she used the dreaded “N-word” because it was common in the music she and her friends had been listening to. It was not intended to be seen by or to upset anyone; it was just a one-off social media message like millions of others that are sent every day, by an immature child lacking common sense, experience and a fully formed brain. As such, it should have been ignored, especially by her peers, who suffered from the same maladies.
But because of the scourge of social media and a culture which increasingly encourages cruelty, vengeance, personal destruction, and the elevation of doing harm to those who “deserve it” to a societal norm, the message became a ticking time bomb in the hands of those who felt they had a right to destroy her.
Somebody send a copy of the message to Jimmy Galligan’s phone last school year. Galligan is black, and Mimi was a fellow classmate whom he knew and had spoken with earlier in their high school days.
Ethics Point 1: Whoever saved the message and set out to make sure that someone would see it who would find it upsetting is the first and the catalytic ethics villain in this story. There was no justifiable reason to send the message to Galligan except to upset and trigger him, which someone who knew him obviously believed it would. A fair, rational and ethical person would know that a years-old message on SnapChat is meaningless, and the Golden Rule would have taught him or her that circulating such a message is something he or she would never want anyone to do with an ill-considered video of their creation.
Here the Times attempts to prejudice the reader in Jimmy’s favor with a trail of irrelevancies:
- “Nigger” was regularly hurled in classrooms and hallways throughout his years in the Loudoun County school district where he was a student. He had brought the issue up to teachers and administrators but, much to his anger and frustration, his complaints had gone nowhere. Irrelevant. That doesn’t excuse what he did in any way.
- Teachers refused to do anything about it when he complained. Again, irrelevant. Their lack of responsible conduct does not excuse his.
- “During that school year, Mr. Galligan said, [a] student made threatening comments about Muslims in an Instagram video. Mr. Galligan showed the clip to the school principal, who declined to take action, citing free speech and the fact that the offensive behavior took place outside school. ‘I just felt so hopeless,’ Mr. Galligan recalled.” Yeah, gotta do something about that “free speech” problem. Better plot to destroy another student who used a taboo word once, when she was 15….
- “Ms. Groves, who just turned 19, lives with her parents and two siblings in a predominantly white and affluent gated community built around a golf course.” Obviously she had to be taken down a peg as a privileged white girl.
- The school is in Leesburg, Virginia, a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee—So what?— and the school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling….SUPER “So what?” I get it: systemic racism made Jimmy behave like a vicious jerk. Wrong. Being a vicious jerk made Jimmy behave like a vicious jerk.
Jimmy Galligan set out to “get” Mimi, and held on to the video, planning to circulate it at just the right time to “teach her a lesson.” “He tucked the video away, deciding to post it publicly when the time was right,” the Times says.
Let’s be clear: the time would never be “right.” Posting the video to harm her would be wrong whenever he did it, but especially four years after it was made.The Times article never says or suggests this, however. Indeed, the words “wrong,” unjust” and “unethical” never appear in the story at all.
When Galligan received the old video, he and Groves were seniors, and both 18. Mimi was a varsity cheer captain whose aspiration was to attend the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where the cheer team was the reigning national champion. Jimmy waited until Mimi’s dream had come true, and she was accepted at the school. Then he released the video.
Ethics Point 2: Whatever happened to Mimi as a result of this calculated, indefensible conduct doesn’t change its essential hateful, cruel nature. What Jimmy intended—to harm someone he barely knew based on a communication not directed to him from four years earlier can’t be defended under any ethical system. If it ended up doing little or no harm, like a bomb that turns out to be a dud or a missed sniper shot, that is moral luck, and does not mitigate the sheer evil nature—yes, I think “evil” is an apt description here— of what Jimmy did and intended to do.
The “right time” for Jimmy was the peak of the George Floyd Freakout, and his choice of a moment to release the video was the equivalent of throwing a match into a bone-dry forest with Mimi tied to one of the trees. Within hours, the video had gone viral on Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, and the social media mob demanded that the University of Tennessee revoke its admission offer.
Ethics Point 3: Imagine a culture where substantial numbers of people exercise the power to interfere with a stranger’s educational opportunities and career path based on using a single word, directed at nobody in particular, in an impulsive social media post when that individual was a child, and worse, where such people think their conduct is virtuous. Well. that’s the United States of America today.
Mimi Groves was quickly bounced from the university’s cheer team. She then withdrew from the school under pressure from admissions officials, who said they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from outraged alumni, students and the public.
Ethics Point 4: And there we have the level of integrity, courage, ethical reasoning and fairness of our typical university administrators. They are the servants of the mob, not values. They reveal themselves as unfit to teach, educate, or to operate a n institution of learning by such craven and indefensible behavior.
Writes the Times: “Groves was among many incoming freshmen across the country whose admissions offers were revoked by at least a dozen universities after videos emerged on social media of them using racist language.”
Ethics Point 5: “Everybody does it,” so it must be right, eh? Except that there is a material difference between current admittees engaging in the irresponsible act of making racially inflammatory statements online contemporaneously with their admission, and a woman who issued a dumb three-second video four years ago. The question of whether private social media conduct is a justification for school sanctions is a separate, though related, issue. That Mimi Groves was the victim, not the miscreant, in this episode should be self-evident. What happened to other students, rightly or wrongly, at other schools is not germane.
Jimmy Galligan has begun his freshman year at Vanguard University in California. Mimi Groves has enrolled in online classes at a nearby community college.
He is an ethics villain, and she was his victim. Yet a large number of people in this country, perhaps even a majority, lack the ethical resources to figure that out, as we will see in Part 2.