It is sobering to read the hateful and contemptuous comments from so many of my Facebook friends about the legislators of Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Mississippi and other states that have either passed or have tried to pass laws allowing citizens to opt out of the cultural freight train that gives them the option of boarding or getting crushed. Whether these are “religious freedom” laws or “bathroom laws,” aimed at transgendered interlopers in the once orderly realm of public bathrooms, or whether they are designed to fight for the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman,” these laws, every one of them unwise and unethical, and probably unconstitutional too, need to be regarded as the inevitable and predictable result when human beings are forced to absorb cultural shifts in a matter of years or less that properly would evolve over generations
Culture–what any society, country, region, religion, business, organization, club, family, secret society or tree house agrees over time as how they do things, think about things, what is right and what is wrong, what is remembered and what is forgotten–is a constantly evolving process. Efforts to freeze it inevitably fail, because human beings as a species can’t stop themselves from learning. Efforts to rush the installment of major changes, however, can be disastrous, even when there seems like no alternative but to rush.
Laws don’t automatically change culture. They are part of the process, both reflecting and facilitating cultural shifts, as well as institutionalizing them. They do not even mark the end of such shifts. Nobody should be surprised, angry or abusively critical when those who have been raised to believe in certain values and practices feel betrayed and mistreated, and see the need to resist when their sense of what is right is suddenly proclaimed as not only wrong but the sign of a character deficiency and a cause for denigration and disrespect. Continue reading →
“You have to exercise patience with people, but people are not going to understand the subject overnight.”
—-Sgt. Shane Ortega, helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, speaking to the Washington Post about his legal battle with the U.S. military, which continues to classify him as a woman despite his transition to a man.
The reason we say that “hard cases make bad law” is that the toughest cases fall between the cracks in rules and regulations, and they all have cracks. The law seeks consistent precedents, so anomalous fact patterns threaten the integrity and efficiency of otherwise effective laws and rules that work well in the vast majority of situations. Yet those hard cases usually indicate flaws in policies, rules and laws, and sometimes point to the need for change.
Often, an organization, especially a bureaucratic one like the military, will deal with such disruptive cases by simply looking past the actual facts, and treating them “by the book.” Ortega represents a particularly glaring instance of this phenomenon, which in his case not only harms his career, but also makes the military appear rigid to the point of absurdity.
Yet, as his Ethical Quote of the Month indicates, he understands. Change is painful, and it takes time. Continue reading →
There’s been a lot of gratuitous Harvard-bashing lately, lately being defined as, oh, the last two hundred years or so. The latest plot to embarrass Harvard, my alma mater, came from the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. This also isn’t a new development: I often found the Crimson embarrassing to Harvard back when I was student, when its staff was as often as not on a picket line chanting “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
It’s latest effort was to send a roving reporter out with a video camera to show how ignorant Harvard students are. The question featured: “What is the capital of Canada?” Here is the video:
Sure enough, none of the students shown could answer the question, except a Canadian. How humiliating! I can only imagine how many people will be flush with pride because they know that the capital city is Ottawa, and Harvard students don’t.
Of course, the video is meaningless. One Crimson reader, a student, wrote in to point out that he was interviewed for the stunt, gave the right answer, and turned up on the cutting room floor. He theorizes that there were others like him, and I wouldn’t be surprised: “Only six out of 19 Harvard students know the capital of Canada” isn’t much of a headline, is it? “Lame” was this student’s verdict for the Crimson’s rigged version of “Jaywalking.” I agree. Continue reading →
A prominent stutterer. She managed to be rather popular in groups despite the problem, or so I hear.
The New York Times related the story of County College of Morris student Philip Garber Jr., who stutters badly. He is also confident and inquiring, and likes to participate in class discussions, though naturally his speech problems make that process challenging for him, his teachers, and his classmates.
One instructor, an adjunct professor named Elizabeth Snyder, simply refused to call on him, and informed him that his stuttering was disruptive, and to keep his questions to himself or write them down. He reported this to the Dean, who told him that he should transfer to another class.
Alcoholics Anonymous, as anyone who has listened to Charlie Sheen’s anti-AA rants knows, employs repeated evocations of God and “a higher power” in its formula for treating alcoholism. But while many have successfully turned to faith in their journeys to sobriety, most individual AA chapters neither insist on religious belief nor preach it, leaving it to each member to decide what his or “her higher power” is. To many, it is a God, and to many it is the fellowship of AA itself. The point of the higher power is to help an alcoholic discover the spiritual strength and resolve to conquer a pernicious and powerful disease with no known cure. the objective of AA, however, is not to seek to strengthen religion. Continue reading →
With all the alcoholics in my life, and there are and have been many (some of whom I undoubtedly never knew qualified), today was the first time I ever actually attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed, before yesterday I didn’t know I could attend. Many groups have periodic “open” meetings, however, to which friends and family members of alcoholics as well as “anyone interested in learning about alcoholism” are invited. I know a lot about alcoholism, learned the hard way. Now I know more. More important than that, I realize that Alcoholics Anonymous has a great deal to teach everyone…not just about alcoholism, but about ethics. Continue reading →
Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.
Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.
It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Continue reading →
With all the talk about incivility sparked by the media’s determination to blame a madman’s shooting rampage on Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party, it rapidly became evident that civility is a somewhat elusive concept. For example, while shouting “You lie!” at the President while he is speaking is definitely uncivil, arguing that the President was really foreign born isn’t—it’s stupid, but not uncivil. Calling Rush Limbaugh “a Big, Fat, Idiot” in the title of your book, as Sen. Al Franken did, is uncivil, as is calling Nancy Pelosi “the Wicked Witch of the West,” as Rush Limbaugh did. Using cross-hairs to designate Democratic House seats that Republicans are “gunning for'”, “targeting” or “taking aim at”, on the other hand, is not uncivil…just unsettling if one is metaphor-challenged or hoplophobic (having a pathological fear of guns.)
Never fear, however. Before the echoes of President Obama’s call for Americans to come together had barely faded, the public got a handy lesson from the Governor of Maine about what incivility sounds like, as his term launches the new Maine Incivility Project. Continue reading →
It is rare that an ethics issue breaks down neatly into two well-defined camps, but that is the what has happened regarding an October episode in which Southwest airline flight attendants kicked a mother and her unusually loud two-year old off a flight. Continue reading →