Blog: The Ethical Echo Chamber
In 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the Supreme Court. The president was a conservative Republican. Justice Cardozo was seen as a liberal Democrat — but he was also recognized as the greatest legal mind in the country.
President Hoover certainly would have preferred a conservative, but he knew the country wouldn’t stand for him to choose a supreme court nominee based on politics. He nominated Benjamin Cardozo, who was approved by the Senate — unanimously .
As recently as 1986, the Senate confirmed Antonin Scalia without a single opposing vote, and in 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg sailed through confirmation with only 3 dissensions. It wasn’t so long ago that our politicians’ top priority was to keep the system working.
But times have changed.
Beauty contests aren’t PC anymore, but this year’s Miss Peru pageant was truly a thing of beauty.
Instead of headlines filled with accusations of sex scandals and kneejerk denials, as well as unfocused protests turning violent, contest contestants in Peru found a way to elevate an exercise in objectification into a show of civic responsibility, ethical accountability, and social conscience.
What does it say when beauty queens have more moral authority than politicians? Their initiative and resolution should be an inspiration to all of us.
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Feeding frenzy might be the best caption for our scandal-ridden headlines. Paradoxically, the designation fasting frenzy would be equally suitable.
Let me explain.
In recent weeks and months, reports of sexual misconduct have propagated faster than entries on a nine-year-old’s birthday wish list. Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Steven Seagal and, of course, Harvey Weinstein are just a few of the 33 alleged predators listed in a recent L.A. Times article. Since then, accusations have been leveled Roy Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, George Takei, and Louis CK.
Perhaps the brightest silver lining is the extraordinary speed with which Kevin Spacey succeeded in destroying his own career. It’s reassuring to know that there are still forms of behavior sufficiently deviant to evoke universal condemnation.
In most cases, the alleged perpetrators have either fired back with furious rebuttals or dissembled with transparent evasions. Sadly but unsurprisingly, they remain unrepentant despite multitudinous plaintiffs or even their own court settlements.
Given the venal culture of both Washington and Hollywood, many of us are eager to believe every indictment and highly skeptical of the denials. But not all of us.
THE DARKER SIDE OF THE DARK SIDE
What effect do these scandals have on our culture? As with so many things, there’s good and there’s bad. The real question is: which outweighs the other?
On the positive side, when predators see that society will expose them and hold them accountable for their actions, the safer all potential victims become. On the other hand, the more such incidents are reported, the more degenerate behavior appears to become the norm. The result, perversely, could be to destigmatize and even enable similar behavior.
Then there is the sheer number of accusers. With so many plaintiffs, it’s hard not to wonder if some might be opportunists, simply piling on to genuine claims in hope of cashing in on the misfortunes of others. The frequency of such claims also increases the likelihood of defamation becoming a popular form of harassment itself, with baseless accusation converted into a weapon for character assassination.
Moreover, there’s the problem of exaggeration, of innocuous episodes unreasonably magnified. To wit, when former President George H. W. Bush – 93 years old and no longer fully in command of his faculties – pats a woman on her backside, this does not rise to level of abuses currently dominating the news cycles. We do real victims a disservice when lurid headlines paint every indiscretion with the same brush.
LESS THAN CHARMING
Depravity is bad enough. But the preponderance of charges, the kneejerk denials, and the moral equivalence of the petty and the abhorrent – these form a caustic trifecta of venality that sows cynicism all across the social landscape. With tragic irony, we can become so disgusted that we no longer care.
King Solomon says, If the snake bites because it was not charmed, there is no benefit to the charmer’s art.
How easily we convince ourselves that whatever we want is ours for the taking, that with craft and persuasion we can win anything we desire with no concern for risks and consequences. And when we overreach and fall victim to our own devices, the venomous destruction we let loose not only endangers us but all around us as well. In our arrogance we free the viper from its pit, and no one knows where it will strike.
Most of us will never come close to committing acts as horrific as those that fill the headlines. But without positive action, the persistence of such stories can erode our own commitment to ethics and set our own moral compass spinning in all directions.
So how do we protect ourselves? First, by taking responsibility for even the smallest of our own actions. Second, by refusing to excuse the misdeeds of others – regardless of station or alliance – and, simultaneously, refusing to accept unsubstantiated accusations until all the evidence is in.
To see that all people are treated with the respect they deserve, to always rise to the defense of the defenseless, to hold ourselves and all others to a higher standard of personal conduct – this is the formula for a healthy, respectful, and civil society.
In 1954, Jim Lovell, who would later lead the Apollo 13 space mission, was flying his Banshee night fighter when his plane experienced a total electrical failure.
There he was, the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, with no instrumentation and no way to find his ship. But as he looked out into the darkness, he noticed a glimmer of photo luminescent algae that had been stirred up in the wake of his aircraft carrier. He followed the trail back to his ship and landed safely.
If the lights hadn’t gone out, he never would have found his way home.
It’s fascinating to consider how our eyes are designed.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
—John F. Kennedy
“In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”