Ethics Quiz: The Weather Lady’s Collapse

Let me begin by announcing that she seems to be Ok, and is recuperating at home.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is laughing the first time you see that video (as I did)  unethical, as in unkind, uncaring, and disrespectful, a violation of the Golden Rule?

Related questions:

  • Is slapstick comedy corrupting?
  • Is this a guy thing?
  • I am a physical comedy aficionado; I’ve staged it, written it, and performed it. Does that excuse me, or damn me?
  • I laughed before I knew what happened to the poor woman. Would it change your answer if she had died? (It shouldn’t, you know. Moral luck again.)

10 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Weather Lady’s Collapse

  1. My admission – I read the article first, then watched the video and still laughed. The difference to me is the laughter isn’t directed at her misfortune but at the physical at itself. That may be splitting hairs to justify myself, but flip the moral argument the other way – would it have been bad to laugh if it was due to clumsiness and she wasn’t hurt at all?

    I do think this is more of a man thing (yes, there are gender differences) – for whatever reason, physical slapstick humor seems to to be primarily a guy thing. I’d be willing to wager that 85%+ of fans of the Three Stooges are male.

  2. I don’t think a semi-reflexive reaction can be unethical. Reflexive laughter may have provided an evolutionary benefit, and thus a quick burst of laughter is not necessarily under one’s direct volition. Thus, a moment of laughter is non-ethical; no more so than yelping when stubbing one’s tow.

    Of course, one can over voluntarily overreact, and unethically laugh at someone’s pain (or smash the offending object that hurt the tow).

    There is also a bit of social trust here. We inherently trust that when a video such as the above is posted, the “victim” is OK. If the anchor were seriously injured or died, we trust that we’d be warned; that the headline would alert us (“Weather women hospitalized after collapse on air”, etc).

    It would be unethical to post the video without providing the serious context in such instance, especially knowing the default human response would be to chuckle.

  3. I don’t think that laughing about this before learning about the woman’s illness is unethical. Humans are risible. We find humor in things that are juxtapositions of contraries. We are very used to seeing, on TV, things that are meant to make us laugh, including off color jokes with seemingly serious people. That is most of what comedy is. It is rare to see someone collapse for real on television, but common to see someone pretend to, usually for laughs.

    What would be unethical would be if you knew that she suffered an illness or death, and still found it funny. The fact that you realize that this was serious is the important part, not the fact that what you initially considered was false.

    I will give you an example from my own life that I think portrays this concept more obviously. When I was engaged to the man that is now my husband, I went to eat Thanksgiving with his family. He would repay that, we thought, by going to Christmas with mine. My mother called us on the day after Thanksgiving, when we were sitting around, playing games with his friends. I had left my phone in the other room, having forgotten to charge it the night before, so my mom, after trying my phone with little success, called his phone. My mother and my fiancé had a relationship where they teased each other at every single opportunity, so seeing her on the caller ID, he immediately answered and gave her a snarky greeting. This was normally approached with my mother saying some snarky right back and them getting a good laugh from it. This time, my mother was actually calling to say that my cousin had been killed the night before, his body had just been found, and I needed to come home and get to the funeral. There was literally no way for my then fiancé to know that it was a deadly serious call, and he felt amazingly guilty for giving my mom crap on a day that she needed it the least. My husband was not unethical. What you cannot be reasonably expected to know, you cannot reasonably be held accountable before.

    As a note, Jack, I discuss Ethics Alarms with my husband often enough that my eight year old asks routinely if I’m reading something written by Mr. Marshall whenever I’m looking at my phone.

  4. I find this one fascinating for a variety of reasons. One of those is that I no doubt had a different reaction to seeing the event under the headline “BREAKING: CBS LA Weather Forecaster collapses live on air.” So I can’t say how I would have responded had I simply been watching that news show.

    Part of my response is also based on the initial movement, the slow bend forward toward the desk. That seemed almost choreographed, as if she was going to pound her head on the desk as some sort of statement on the imminent forecast, described by the co-anchor as “the calm before the storm.” It’s the slide out of the chair that changes the dynamic. That’s definitely unstaged.

    More importantly, I’d read your statement that she’s recovering at home before I viewed the video. This takes us very close to the notion of aesthetic distance, that unspoken understanding that what we are watching isn’t actually happening. Hence, we don’t run for cover when the bad guy in a play or a movie appears with a gun and looks threatening, and we’re not confused when the actor who played Hamlet is miraculously alive to take a curtain call even though the character is dead. Or, in this case, that she suffered an episode, but is on her way to recovery.

    When I was teaching introductory play analysis courses, we’d talk about this phenomenon especially in discussions of comedy, particularly physical comedy. One of the reasons we laugh at pratfalls, slapstick, etc., is that we understand at least subconsciously that the actor isn’t really hurt. Another is that—this time, at least—it wasn’t us. Audience superiority, however it is manifested, is an essential ingredient of comedy.

    This changes when aesthetic distance disappears. If we see someone fall down a flight of stairs, we’re initially horrified. But if the victim then gives an indication that they’re okay, now we have permission to laugh, and we almost always do. Interesting, we’re more likely to laugh at a friend than at a stranger, at someone young and healthy than at someone older and frailer, even if they claim to be fine.

    To the extent that I can process my thoughts in seeing this video, here’s my best guess, in chronological order:

    1. I’m know I’m going to see a video of a TV weather forecaster collapsing on air. I’m being asked about the ethics at laughing at the incident. I’m told she’s recovering.

    2. OK, let’s watch this.

    3. She starts slowly leaning forwards. That isn’t a collapse, and it’s kind of funny.

    4. OMG! She really does collapse! (Yes, I know, I’d been told that. The manner caught me by surprise, though.) Laughter is now inappropriate, at least until we find out more.

    5. Wait, I’ve already been told she’s recuperating and appears to be fine. I knew, of course, but it passed out of my mind when I saw her slide out of the chair. And yeah, there was some humor in that. Perhaps even a lot of humor. But there wouldn’t have been had she had a fatal heart attack, for example. Context matters; known context really matters.

    6. And what did that anchor mean by “Not again!”? This has happened before? [Apparently so.] Am I captured by the incident or by the other women’s reaction to it? (Think, for example, of the noble families’ responses to the mechanicals’ performance at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

    Ultimately, I think we’re hard-wired to find humor in whatever form it presents itself. Sometimes it’s just clever word-play; sometimes it’s very dark irony. The ethical question only arises if we know (or should know) some circumstance that renders our laughter cruel or unfeeling. There are enough restraints on laughter; we needn’t add more to curtail an immediate and unthinking burst of a response to an unexpected and uncontextualized stimulus.

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