Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/21/17: Fake Bravery, Mysterious Hate Speech, Vindictive Ex-Presidents, And The Trans Fold-Out

I confess: I miss New England…

Good Morning.

Thank God it’s Saturday.

1 The definition of “courage” being used to describe some of the late-to-the-party revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s victims is more than a bit off.  For example, Academy Award  winner Lupita Nyong’o’s op-ed, in which she talked about her own harassment by Weinstein, was hailed by Kerry Washington, Ellen DeGeneris and others, including singer Janelle Monae, who wrote, “My hero. Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for using your voice.”

Bravery? Nyong’o’s piece could be fairly described as kicking a dead horse when he’s down. There is no danger to Nyong’o now in joining the throng accusing and exposing Weinstein, whose head is on a metaphorical pike in Hollywood. Indeed, claiming victimhood now acquires sympathy and declares that one is joining one’s peers in a virtuous quest. There is nothing wrong with her op-ed or the fact that she wrote it, but it isn’t brave. It would have been brave if she had written it while Weinstein had power…and was still using that power to intimidate and exploit actresses

2.  A recent quiz in the New York Times threw some light, or maybe ice water, on the concept of “hate speech.” The quiz asked Times readers to judge whether a statement was hate speech, and contrasted the results with Facebook’s hate speech policy, and the kind of statement would be removed from the social media platform as violating its standards. Facebook defines hate speech as:

  1. An attack, such as a degrading generalization or slur.
  2. Targeting a “protected category” of people, including one based on sex, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and serious disability or disease.

Here were the samples; Times readers were asked to vote yes or no to the question, “Would this statement meet Facebook’s criteria for hate speech?”

A. “Why do Indians always smell like curry?! They stink!”

B. “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus.”

C. “White men are assholes.”

D. “Keep ‘trans’ men out of girls bathrooms!”

E. “Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks.”

F. I’ll never trust a Muslim immigrant… they’re all thieves and robbers.”

The Answers:

A. Facebook: Hate speech. Times readers: 75% yes, 25% no.

B. Facebook: Not hate speech. Times readers: 92% yes, 8% no.

C. Facebook: Hate speech. Times readers: 48% yes, 52% no.

D. Facebook: It depends on the context. Times readers: 57% yes, 43% no.

E. Facebook: Not hate speech. Times readers: 80% yes, 20% no.

F. Facebook: Not hate speech. Times readers: 91% yes, 9% no.

Ethics Alarms: the concept of hate speech is a dangerous, intentionally vague, manufactured category of speech pointing to restrictions of free expression. There is hateful speech, insulting speech, bigoted speech, biased speech, cruel speech, uncivil speech and rude speech, but all of it is still protected speech.

The tell is C. Times readers only voted that one statement wasn’t hate speech, the one that denigrated all white men. Of course they did. By Facebook standards, that vote is hate speech. I think.

Facebook can ban whatever speech it chooses, of course. The fact that it engages in this kind of vague, inconsistent, bias-laden censorship, however, tells us how much we should trust it: Not at all.

3. Speaking of bias, the Trump-haters in the news media—which is to say, the news media—were thrilled that both Barack Obama and George W. Bush delivered, on the same day, statements that were taken as rebukes to President Trump without mentioning him by name. Both Presidents were treading in serious hypocrisy mine fields, and neither were called on it sufficiently. Bush spoke of “fading confidence” in free markets: Gee, who was President when insufficiently regulated capitalists crashed the world economy? Obama, even more cynically, pointed to social, racial and economic schisms after his eight years of aggravating and exploiting them. Both Bush and Obama—and for them, this is a despicable ethics foul—conflated illegal immigration with immigration, to the seal-flipper applause of the open-border crowd.

The significance of these dual attacks is less than it appears. Bothex-POTUSes are motivated by personal animus and as well as personal bias. President Trump is doing an excellent job, as promised, of erasing Obama’s few substantive achievements and policy initiatives from the record, and he has only been at it for less than a year. Are you a a successful President if the primary lasting effect of your administration is reversal of progress in racial reconciliation? Obama’s enmity is predictable, but hardly based on objective consideration. Bush’s attack is even less so.  Candidate Trump’s attacks on President Bush’s brother were nasty and personal; the entire family has made no secret of the fact that it won’t forget, and hates the President’s guts/

The real ethics lesson, as well as a practical policy lesson is that being gratuitously mean to people isn’t just unethical, it is incompetent for a leader. This is one more area where the President shows a self-destructive lack of control and prudence as well as a flat learning curve. At a recent event, Paul Ryan, another target of Trump’s personal insults, mocked the President. John McCain has clearly decided that he will do whatever he can to undermine him until his last breath. Not only do the various public figures Trump needlessly insults and attacks occasionally have the opportunity to strike back in substantive ways, they also have supporters who will side with them even when those strikes are unfair or petty.

Deliberately making enemies is an example of life incompetence. It is so for a librarian or a short-order cook; it is even more so for a leader. It just makes it harder for you to do your job.

Why would you do that?

4. And now that Hugh Heffner is dead, Playboy is trying to make him roll over in his grave by announcing that it will have its first transgender Playmate.

Is this Ick, or ethics? Presumably, if the magazine has any integrity at all, Playboy chooses its Playmates according to their aesthetic qualities, not their medical history. These are women. Stipulated: French model Ines Rau is a woman, now.  Why is her selection focusing on how she got to be one?

Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Rau wasn’t chosen because she is a beautiful woman, though I am not saying that she isn’t. She was chosen because she is transgender, and beautiful enough. This was affirmative action. Reports say she is honored. Why isn’t she insulted? If President Obama told Sonia Sotomayor that she was being nominated as a Supreme Court Justice not because she is especially qualified, but because she is Hispanic, would Sotomayor have been pleased?

Rau is being exploited, as Playboy treats the transgender social issue as a fad, to sell magazines and get publicity. Predictably, many of Playboy’s readers are objecting for the wrong reasons: they are bigots. Playboy’s social media response is telling: “Standing on the right side of history.” This is, as Ethics Alarms has pointed out before, a facile dodge and a rationalization. “We’re on the right side of history” is weak variation of the Number 1 rationalization on the list, “Everybody does it.” It means “Everybody’s going to do it, just you wait and see.”

Color me dubious. Heterosexual men who buy girlie magazines are going to find transgender women more beautiful and sexually arousing because they once were biologically male?

Sure, Playboy. Whatever you say.

Ethics Quote Of This Day, July 2: The Inscription On the Monument To The First Minnesota Regiment At Gettysburg National Battlefield Park


 “On the afternoon of July 2, 1863 Sickles’ Third Corps, having advanced from this line to the Emmitsburg Road, eight companies of the First Minnesota Regiment, numbering 262 men were sent to this place to support a battery upon Sickles repulse. As his men were passing here in confused retreat, two Confederate brigades in pursuit were crossing the swale. To gain time to bring up the reserves and save this position, Gen Hancock in person ordered the eight companies to charge the rapidly advancing enemy. The order was instantly repeated by Col Wm Colvill. And the charge as instantly made down the slope at full speed through the concentrated fire of the two brigades breaking with the bayonet the enemy’s front line as it was crossing the small brook in the low ground there the remnant of the eight companies, nearly surrounded by the enemy held its entire force at bay for a considerable time and till it retired on the approach of the reserve the charge successfully accomplished its object. It saved this position and probably the battlefield. The loss of the eight companies in the charge was 215 killed & wounded. More than 83% percent. 47 men were still in line and no man missing. In self sacrificing desperate valor this charge has no parallel in any war. Among the severely wounded were Col Wm Colvill, Lt Col Chas P Adams & Maj Mark W. Downie. Among the killed Capt Joseph Periam, Capt Louis Muller & Lt Waldo Farrar. The next day the regiment participated in repelling Pickett’s charge losing 17 more men killed and wounded.”

On July 2, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 262 Union soldiers in the First Minnesota Regiment rushed—which apparently specialized in desperate fighting-–to throw themselves into a breach in the Union line at Cemetery against a greatly superior force, knowing that they were almost surely to die. 215 of them did, but the regiment bought crucial minutes that allowed reinforcements to arrive.

It is perhaps one of the most inspiring of the many acts of courage that day, the second day of the battle that changed the course of the Civil War. I first wrote about the sacrifice of the First Minnesota five years ago, here.

Let’s try to remember.

(A recommendation: Sometime between July 1 and the Fourth ever year, we always watch Ted Turner’s excellent film, which also has one of my favorite film scores.  It  helps.)

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Aitziz Hasan (1997-2013)


Aitzaz Hasan, 15, was  standing with fellow students outside his school last week in Ibrahimzai, a region of Hangu in north-western Pakistan. They noticed a man approaching wearing a vest laden with explosives.  They knew what was about to happen. There were over 2000 children at the school,and Aitzaz told his friends that someone needed to stop the suicide bomber from getting close enough to harm them.

According to witnesses, Aitzaz approached the terrorist, confronted him, and tackled him to keep him from getting any closer.

The suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing himself and the brave boy.

This is by far the shortest biography of any of the Ethics Heroes enshrined here in the Ethics Alarms  Heroes Hall of Honor. It is far from the least impressive. This young man, whose life had barely begun, made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of others. No one of any age should have to face the choice Aitzaz had; no one  should ever have to grow up under conditions that would impose such an ethical challenge on anyone. Yet when the crisis arose, this young man had the  courage and values to do what all nations honor soldiers and other heroes for doing to preserve civilization and human life through the centuries: he faced the challenge, put the lives of others before his own, fixed the problem, ended the threat, and died. Continue reading

July 2, 1863: When 262 Minnesotans Saved The United States Of America

Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment

Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment

For the last two years, I have posted here about the courage and sacrifice of the men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg. There was more than enough of those qualities, on both sides, to go around that day, and unless you are in the vicinity of that lovely and unbearably sad little Pennsylvania town, it isn’t just the brave Minnesotans who are neglected, but all of the participants. Yesterday was July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of the battle in 1863, and there was scant mention of it in the media. After all, there is the Zimmerman trial, and outrage over Jennifer Lopez accepting a million dollars to sing “Happy Birthday” for a brutal dictator, and whether movie viewers will flock to see Johnny Depp play Tonto. One of the few excellent acknowledgements of the date and its significance was by CBS, which also featured the famous feature on the battle published years ago by the Saturday Evening Post. 

In an ambitious mood, I once resolved to find a different group of battlefield heroes from that day to feature every July 2, the messiest, most important pivotal of the battle that itself has been overshadowed by the tragedy of suicidal Pickett’s Charge on July 3. But I have neither the historical research skills nor time to do justice to such a task, though the injustice of so many forgotten heroes is great. It is best to allow the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, who obeyed a desperate order to fill a breach in the Union line, knowing that it meant almost certain death,  “to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position and probably the battlefield,” to stand for all of them.

As for me, I’m going to watch, once again, Ted Turner’s excellent film Gettysburg, and play its soaring score in my home and my car. We have a duty to remember, and honor, every moment of those three days in July, 150 years ago. Continue reading

Reminder: July 2 Is “Thank Minnesota Day,” and Remember Gettysburg, Too.

Last year on this date, I posted about the injustice of historical memory, and how the heroic exploits of the Maine soldiers on Little Round Top commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg have all but obliterated recognition of the even more remarkable sacrifices made by the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment that same day, when it took on the suicide mission of blocking a hole in the Union line against a Confederate force that outnumbered it five to one. Those Minnesotans quite possibly saved the United States of America at the price of their lives.

I see that some readers are finding that post today: let me make it easier for everybody. Here is the link. This a day for all of us to honor the heroism of the First Minnesota, and indeed all of the Americans, North and South, who fought for their nation, their states, their ideals and the soul of America in the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863. Continue reading

July 2: A Good Day to Thank Minnesota For Saving The Country

If you know anyone from Minnesota, today would be a good day to say “thank you.”

July 2 was the second day of the decisive Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the most complicated and wide-ranging day in the conflict. So much was going on at Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, on Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den and a half dozen other key features on the battle field that whether an instance of heroism was recorded or forgotten is as much a matter of chance as anything else. Even determining what was the turning point in the day’s conflict, which ultimately was won by the forces of the North, is an exercise in searching for order in chaos.

There is no question, however, that the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment’s astonishing heroics stand out even among the many other examples of gallantry on that day. The battlefield monument to the First Minnesota is the one of the largest erected to any Union regiment, and yet it has not guaranteed our cultural memory of the epic sacrifice those soldiers made. Other second day exploits, due to sometimes arbitrary choices made by historians and film makers, have taken up the limited space available in the public’s attention to the details of the Civil War.

This is an injustice. As the battle raged for Cemetery Ridge, crucial high ground occupied by Union forces, General Winfield Hancock saw a serious breach in the Union line, and realized that Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade had to be opposed and stopped in their advance until he could round up reinforcements. He ordered the First Minnesota to charge the brigade and hold the position, even though its 262 men would be outnumbered by a force of more than 1200.  Continue reading

Remember Gettysburg

Today is July 1, which is being treated across the United States as the gateway to a long weekend and the Fourth of July, and little more. July 1 is also, however, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most important and most deadly battle of the many important and deadly conflicts in the American Civil War. The two American armies that clashed in the Pennsylvania town sustained more than 50,000 casualties on the Gettysburg battlefield, which may be the saddest and noblest place in America.

If you have not made at least one pilgrimage to the battlefield, you owe it to yourself, and to the memory of the combatants, to go. Continue reading

Should Rep. Weiner Resign?

Well, at least Weiner got THAT off his chest. Now all he needs to do is resign.

I was giving a seminar on building an organizational culture free from sexual harassment today, and happened to mention Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter misadventures. “Allegedly!” shouted out one of the participants. “Allegedly,” I conceded. “But I’m pretty sure we’re going to find out that he behaved inappropriately; I knew that the minute he said that the crotch in the picture might have been his. Might have been his? What kind of guy his age takes photos of his crotch?” By the time I left the seminar at about 4 PM, Rep. Weiner was already engaged in his excruciating press conference, confessing, apologizing, and taking the full brunt of the media’s onslaught.

A woman had come forward to reveal more photos the Congressman had sent to her over social media…sad, embarrassing photos for any man over the age of 16 that hinted at untreated emotional problems in a man with a new wife, a high-profile job, and so much to lose. Rep. Weiner had to come clean, not that he had been doing a very convincing job of lying over the past week.

Give him credit for a forthright capitulation to the truth, once he changed his story. Continue reading

Maybe Lies Aren’t Protected Speech After All…

This week, in United States v. Robbins (W.D. Va.); a district court disagreed with previous court opinions this year holding that the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a criminal act to falsely represent that one had been awarded a military honor for valor on the field of combat, was a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech: Continue reading

Free Speech or Theft? The Law and Ethics of Stolen Valor

The U.S. District Court in Colorado ruling in the case of  US v. Strandloff, has found the “Stolen Valor Act,” 18 U.S.C. § 704(b) & (d), to be an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.  Rick Strandloff represented himself as a wounded decorated Iraq War veteran in order to rally support for veterans and opposition to the war. The original Stolen Valor Act of 2005 criminalized the wearing of military medals an individual was never awarded; later, it was expanded to included the crime of falsely saying or writing that one has been given military honors for valor. The Act says, in part, that it is a crime to…

…falsely represent [oneself], verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item …

Deciding an issue like this inevitably comes down to both law and ethics. Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, and deciding how many kinds of speech we can sensibly and reasonably prohibit requires a court and a culture to think about just how bad—how wrong–certain kinds of speech may be, based on their actual and potential harm. Continue reading