Tag Archives: signature significance

Ethics Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I watched last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” twice, just to make sure it was the profound ethics movie I thought it was. It is. None of the reviews described it that way, of course. Here is the New York Times:

“The movie opens on low boil with Mildred behind the wheel of her station wagon near three derelict billboards…she uses the billboards to announce her crusade … a way to get things jumping (the investigators, the tale) and splash some foreboding on an outwardly pacific scene. Much of the story involves the ripples of outrage, confusion and buffoonery that the billboards inspire and that soon envelop almost everyone Mildred knows. Months after her daughter’s death, grief has walled her in; isolating and seemingly impenetrable, it is inscribed in the hardness of her gaze and in her grim new identity as a mother of a dead girl. The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in….”

None of which addresses what is remarkable about the film, which is that it shows what causes our ethics alarms not to ring—Frances McDormand as Mildred and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a racist and vicious deputy, in particular demonstrate  what it is like to be driven by non-ethical considerations of the darkest and most passionate sort—and more important, what causes them to start ringing again. Most reviewers described this as a dark and depressing film. The ethics alarms are mostly off again as the film ends, and that is ominous, but its main ethics message is uplifting in many ways. “Three Billboards” teaches us that even broken, ignorant, alienated human beings have the capacity to access their innate instincts for compassion, justice, forgiveness, selflessness and kindness, and even when our ethical selves seem permanently overcome and decisively defeated, they can burst out again, in control, salvaging what’s best about the species.

There is a moment early in “Three Billboards” that signals that it is not only going to show us what monsters anger and grief can transform us into, but also that what George Washington’s list of 110 Rules called “that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” is remarkably resilient.  A sheriff—the ethics compass of the story, played by Woody Harrelson— visits Mildred after her billboard messages embarrass him and roil the town. She is hard and cold as marble as he tries to explain his failure to find her daughter’s rapist/killer, even after he reminds her that he is dying of cancer. Suddenly the sheriff has a violent  spasm: he coughs up blood on himself and Mildred. And we see her fury evaporate in an instant. The compassionate and caring mother she once was emerges, if only for a few moments. ( McDormand is such a superb actress that she pulls off the sudden transition convincingly and movingly: you believe it, though it is like watching Mr. Hyde turn into Dr. Jekyll in the snap of a finger.) Later, when again her fury has been aroused, we see the same woman firebomb the police station and watch implacably as her nemesis deputy burns. A warning: just because the ethics alarms can ring doesn’t mean they are working well enough.

Sam Rockwell’s character also reveals surprisingly that his ethics spark has not been entirely extinguished, again thanks to a catalyst supplied by the sheriff. This transformation caused considerable  criticism of the film among critics and artists in Hollywood, and some attribute the film’s failure to win the Best Picture Oscar to the fact that a racist is redeemed and revealed to have an ethical core. But except for the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, admittedly a disturbingly large group, we all have that ethical core. We have the ethics alarms too, ready to be re-activated, even if they aren’t in perfect working order. Yes, this is  even true of racists. So much of our current political discourse is driven by the false construct that a single belief or a single lapse of reason marks an individual as irredeemable. Its easier to marginalize and demonize them that way. But it isn’t true.

Indeed Ethics Alarms often declares certain conduct and words as signature significance, proving that an individual is unethical because such actions and thoughts are alien to ethical human beings. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” reminded me that people may be unethical–Mildred and Dixon, the deputy, could never be called ethical, for ethical people don’t set police stations on fire or throw young men out of second story windows, as Dixon does—but that even unethical individuals can find their ethics if you give them a chance.

And if they can find their ethics, so can all of us, and so can society. There is hope.


Addendum: I cannot leave “Three Billboards” without a salute to one of its most powerful scenes, when Mildred tells a priest why she doesn’t care what he has to say when he comes to her home to admonish her for the messages on the billboards:



Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Popular Culture

The Wake-Up Call And The Power Cord

As you may have noticed, your host has been involuntarily separated from Ethics Alarms for about 24 hours. Several things occurred that under normal circumstances would have had me dashing off a post while waiting for flights or preparing to check out of my hotel—and there were definitely several comments that had me reaching for a phantom keyboard—but I was without laptop, thanks to leaving the power cord behind in my previous hotel.

So I have a little story to tell. I stayed at a decent Boston hotel last night, not a 4 star hotel like the one I just left  in Atlanta (The Four Seasons), but a nice one, professionally run, dependable. Yet this morning this was my wake-up call, via recording:

“It’s 7 AM. This is your wake-up call for March 8, 2018.”

Almost at the same time, David Hogg was on CNN, explaining how darned easy it was to create a system that would prevent school shootings forevermore.

Wrong. Systems break down, you experience-free, arrogant, disrespectful, know-nothing puppet.  The belief that human beings can devise systems that will solve every problem, or any problem, and do what they are designed to do without failing miserably at the worst possible times and in the worst imaginable ways is signature significance for a fool, or a child. O-Rings fail. Police don’t act on warnings that a kid is violent. Obamacare raises health care premiums.  Political parties end up nominating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Jack Ruby breaks past police security. Communism ends up killing hundreds of millions rather than creating a worker paradise. The Titanic hits the wrong iceberg exactly where it’s weakest. Hitler takes a sleeping pill during the Normandy invasion.

The T-Rex gets loose. Continue reading


Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Childhood and children, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, Marketing and Advertising, War and the Military, Workplace

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/9/18: Update On A Jerk, Deceptive Recycling, A Movement Becomes A Club, And The Future Is Abused

Good Morning!

1 Good! Billy Williams, that Derry, N.H. Used Apple Store owner who announced that Republicans weren’t welcome in his store, was evicted from his space. For weeks, a sign in the window has said that the store would re-open after renovations, which Williams’ former landlord says is not true. Williams rented the commercial space for $2,000 per month and owed $15,110 after neglecting to pay rent for seven months.

Williams, you will recall, said that he infallibly could recognize Republicans. His Facebook post announcing the GOP ban described members of the political party as “almost evil, and to be honest, usually evil.” [Pointer: Arthur in Maine]

2. Recycling Deceit: In Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, I was intrigued yesterday by the cylindrical re-cycling receptacles that had two deposit holes, a circular one on one side, into which we were told to put cans and bottles, and a long rectangular slot on the other side, for newspapers and other paper refuse.  I lifted off the top: sure enough, everything went into the same place, newspaper and cans alike. I don’t know what the term is for gratuitously demanding that the public do something pointless and trivial just to exert power, but this was it.

3. The problem with #MeToo. Commenting on yesterdays Comment of the Day, in which Carcarwhite wrote, while criticizing the #MeToo movement,

“I was kissed by Eddie Van Halen back stage in the 80’s, on the lips, a few times. He was tipsy and happy and took a selfie of us before seflies were selfies, and I’ve actually had friends on the Left tell me I should my story publicly. And they say I am ENABLING THIS BEHAVIOR by not going forward”

Commenting, Still Spartan said in part, “What you described is NOT “Me Too.” Just because some people take it too far, does not mean that it is not legitimate. Please take it from someone who had to leave a job and have her career derailed for multiple years because of this crap. It happens, and it happens every damn day.” Continue reading


Filed under Comment of the Day, Environment, Ethics Train Wrecks, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media

Unethical Quote Of The Month: Derry, NH Used Apple Store Owner Billy Williams

“There comes a time when every man will needs to stand up for what’s right and blaze a better path. Today we do that, today we say no thank you to any Republican. If you affiliate with the Republican Party you are not welcome into our store. We will not offer you service. If you come in anyway, I suppose you could sneak in but we will probably know. In fact, we can point out a Republican just from the way you look in person or in a photo. Once I tried doing this and realized I could. We put to a test and told 30 random people that we were guessing Republican or not and all 30 I was correct. You have an uptight, closed energy, negative aura to you… almost evil, and to be honest, usually evil. You also lack a psychic gateway to technology.”

—Billy Williams, owner of the Used Apple store in Derry, New Hampshire.

Signature significance: Billy is unethical, a bigot, a bad neighbor, a bad citizen, a bad American, and a toxic asshole. He is the kind of hateful hyper-partisan fool who is poisoning our culture, our communities, national politics and our public dialogue.

So is anyone who cheers him on.

Billy takes pains to point out that his bigotry isn’t illegal, so it must be OK. (See: Rationalizations List, #4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”)  He also doesn’t worry about backlash from any potential customers who might choose to direct their business to someone who isn’t working to divide the United States into divided camps, each discriminating against the other based on hate and contempt for their opinions. “If you’re in it for the right reasons, it doesn’t matter that someone isn’t gonna come to you with their money,” Williams said, courageously. .He then compared himself to Oskar Schindler.

You know, that’s exactly who I thought of! No, wait—it was Oscar Wiener….

Continue reading


Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, U.S. Society

When Ethics Alarms Not Only Don’t Ring, But Signal That They Might Not Have Ever Been Operable: PolitiFact Reveals Its Incompetence And Untrustworthiness Beyond All Reasonable Doubt

This is fortuitous timing! Yesterday Ethics Alarms praised a fact-check job by a supposedly non-partisan media bias watchdog site that critiqued Factcheck.Org’s analysis of the State of The Union. Today Bryan W. White informed us that the site in question favors PolitiFact, the vastly inferior factcheck site operated by the Tampa Bay Times. It is demonstrably one of the most left-biased and untrustworthy of all the fact-checking services. Bryan is a reliable authority on PolitiFact, having documented its partisan and dishonest work for years, and as co-creater of the PolitiFact Bias blog, for which he is the main writer.

Just in case there was any doubt about just how devoid of the necessary integrity and competence PolitiFact is for its mission, yesterday it announced that former Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson had been hired to critique PolitiFact and enhance its trust and credibility. Alan Grayson.


The same Alan Grayson who sent a complaint to then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to prosecute a Republican activist  for starting an anti-Grayson parody website www.mycongressmanisnuts,com, mocking  Grayson’s typically hyperbolic site, http://www.congressmanwithguts.com,  suggesting  to Holder that Langley should be imprisoned for five years.  Now there’s respect for the First Amendment for you! What a perfect ally for a non-partisan media fact-checking operation, right?

Alan Grayson, the same politician I wrote this about in 20o9…

“Grayson is the Congressman whose explanation of the GOP position on health care was that “they want you to die.” He said that Dick Cheney speaks with “blood dripping from his teeth.” His mode of debate and persuasion, in other words, is insult and hyperbole. Respect for opposing views: zilch. Civility grade: F… He has endorsed unethical rules and plays by them…Grayson’s actions once again confirm a reliable rule of human nature: individuals who are habitually uncivil do not merely have a bad habit or poor self-control. They lack humility as well as basic respect and fairness toward others. The common, often uncivil but sometimes accurate  term for individuals like  Rep. Grayson is “jerk.”

and this in 2010… Continue reading


Filed under Kaboom!, U.S. Society

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 1/23/2018: Signature Significance And The Spin Zone [UPDATED]

Good..er, Afternoon!

1  Signature Significance 1. You are a major political party. You have been repeatedly embarrassed in recent months and frequently outmaneuvered by a President who your base considers a compulsive liar fascist moron. In a moment of mass madness, you decide to pander to your most extreme Left base by forcing a government shut-down over the handling of non-citizens, the so-called “Dreamers.” As most semi-conscious observers predicted, your party, not the other one, was bound to be blamed for the shutdown, which was epically stupid like all the shutdowns, which the other party had crashed and burned trying multiple times. When even your unethically allied mainstream media supporters, like the New York Times, failed to support your crazy scheme, you abandoned it in record time, looking foolish, and angering that base you tried to suck up to.

Who do you send out to try to spin the fiasco on CNN?

If your answer is  “Why, that esteemed former Chair of the Democratic National Committee, who even in her prime was noted for the most brazen lying possible, who lost her job as a result of a scandal in which she was found to be, if it hadn’t already been obvious, rigging the nomination for Hillary Clinton, and who her successor as DNC chair just accused in a book of allowing. illegally,  the whole party mechanism to become an arm of the Hillary campaign before Bernie Sanders’ campaign had gotten out of the gate,! Debbie Wassermann Schultz, of course!” you are a) an idiot or b) the Democratic Party.

Could there be a worse spokesperson for the Democrats now? She is not only a habitual liar, but a bad liar. Appearing on Brooke Baldwin’s show, she began her spin by arguing that the shut-down was worth doing because it had the “potential for momentum.” What does that even mean? As always, Wassermann Schultz makes Kellyanne Conway seem like Cicero. Host Brooke Baldwin looked completely puzzled, and responded,

“I know Americans are listening, and they heard you say ‘potential for momentum,’” Baldwin said. “And they’re thinking, ‘Potential for momentum. Was that really worth shutting the government down for?’ The potential for something?”

Whereupon Debbie, predictably, lapsed into her trademark Authentic Frontier Gibberish: Continue reading


Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 11/18/17: (Part One) The Frankenmedia

Wait, how does that go again? What is it that “dies in darkness”?

Good morning (or, as I first typed it, “good monging”), everyone!

1 CNN’s walking, talking, “mistake…CNN’s alleged ethics watchdog, Brian Stelter, is really an embarrassment. He sees his job as defending the news media, not making its conduct better through objective criticism. He especially works up a sweat defending CNN, perhaps the most rooutinely unethical of all…but then, CNN pays his salary, the fools. He’s useless.

In a podcast,, both he and CNN token conservative S.E. Cupp blamed the mean conservative media and commentators unfairly dwelling on “mistakes” to undermine public trust in journalism.  See Rationalization #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”

This is a legitimate defense if, in fact, an individual has been accused of not being perfect.  Usually, however, it is an attempt to minimize the significance of genuine misconduct. When an act suggests that more than an honest mistake or single instance of bad judgment was involved, and that an individual’s conduct indicates a broader lack of character or ethical sensitivity, “Nobody’s perfect!” and “Everybody makes mistakes!” are not only inappropriate and irrelevant, but are presumptively efforts to change the subject. The fact that nobody is perfect does not mean that it isn’t necessary and appropriate to point out unethical conduct when it occurs. It also does not argue for failing to make reasonable assumptions about the ethical instincts of the actor if and when the unethical nature of conduct strongly suggests that it is not an aberration, but a symptom.

Though nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, we are all still accountable for the mistakes we make.

It’s not a mistake when CNN shows itself to be blatantly biased, it’s dishonest and a breach of integrity. It’s not a mistake when CBS, ABC and NBC refuse to report a Democratic Senator’s trial for bribery  until  it ends in a mistrial, its deliberate refusal to report the news. (CBS recently devoted 45 second to the President drinking from a water bottle.) It’s not a mistake when NBC reinstated a news anchor (Brian Williams) who was shown to have lied repeatedly, its contempt for journalism, and irresponsible. It’s not a mistake when ABC ignores basic conflict of interest principles to allow former Clinton staffer and current Clinton Foundation donor George Stephanopoulos to interview both Hillary Clinton (nice, easy interview)and the author of a book criticizing her (hostile interview), it’s incompetent journalism. Etc, meaning I could go on for, oh, 50,000 words or so without having to check my notes.

The fact that CNN lets an unqualified dolt like Stelter talk about ethics isn’t a mistake either.

When mistakes—and fake news, the description of misconceptions as facts, and bias-driven choices regarding which stories to cover and which to bury are not mistakes—by professionals reach a critical mass, they implicate trust.

2. Like THIS mistake, for example…Here, courtesy of Newsbusters, is veteran CNN journalist Gloria Borger spinning for Al Franken:

Borger …immediately went into spin mode by downplaying the fallout, stating that KABC radio host Leann Tweeden “did not call for him to step down or say he ought to step down” and didn’t render an opinion upon being told an investigation had been launched.

Gloria really needs to 1) read Ethics Alarms and 2) take Ethics 101. What a victim chooses to say about an unethical act that harmed her doesn’t alter the seriousness of the act in any way.

From there, Borger continued proving this segment as one of political tribalism, declaring that what matters most is “the context in which all of this occurring, which is Moore — Judge Moore — and that has been, you know, brewing and percolating, whatever you want to say, for days and days and days.” 

In other words, “Look over there!” This is also Ethics 1o1 stuff: Whether the conduct of individual A is better or worse, the unrelated conduct of individual B must be judged on its own ethics breaches. Borgia is appealing to Rationalization #22, “It’s not the worst thing.” (This is also the current favorite of my Facebook friends, who are embarrassing themselves. At least they aren’t posing as journalists.) Continue reading


Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Professions, U.S. Society