Blog for weekly ethics column by Jeffrey L. Seglin distributed by Tribune Media. For information about carrying The Right Thing in your print or online publication, contact information is available at http://www.tmsfeatures.com/contact/ or a e-mail a Tribune Media sales representative at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your ethical questions to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @jseglin or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seglin
On April 26, Joel Wardscored the winning goal for his
Washington Capitals in a National Hockey League playoff game against the Boston
Bruins. It was the seventh game of a tied playoff series, so fan passion was at
a high. Ward is one of the few black hockey players in the NHL.
Almost immediately, dejected Bruins fans (or those
appearing to be) began tweeting racist comments about Ward. The comments were
ugly and the response from the teams and the league swiftly condemned the
In one case, reporter Bob Hohler wrote in The Boston
Globe that a young man had directed a particularly offensive comment at Anson
Carter, a black man who had played for the Bruins in the late 1990s. Carter tracked
down the tweeter, who turned out to be a college student, and reported him to
his school. Carter received an apology from the tweeter, to which Hohler
reports that Carter responded, "Don't think you can hide behind your
computer and say that to someone."
In a perfect world, the young man might learn that words
have consequences. They have sting - and they can stick with you far longer
than you might expect.
There's no question that writers - whether they be
columnists or tweeters - should think about what they write and the impact
their words might have both to the subject about whom they're writing and on
While racists may rarely stop to think about the effect
their words might have, many reasonable, intelligent people do. Through blogs,
tweets, and assorted other venues, it's far easier than ever before to find a
platform from which to espouse a viewpoint. But a question that often looms
large, particularly among those at the beginnings of their careers, is: Will
something I write come back to haunt me in the future?
It's a fair concern. Published words do stick around a
lot longer than they used to and have the capacity to gather a larger audience
than ever. (Students still regularly enjoy reminding me about a column I wrote
for an online magazine more than a decade ago about the ethics of faking an
orgasm. Others like to point to an ethics column in which I copped to lifting
butter knives from a fancy restaurant or two in my youth.)
Racist statements are never OK. But what about viewpoints
on an issue about which you feel strongly that you fear might paint you in a
less attractive light to future potential employers? What's the right thing to
do when trying to weigh if such a risk is worth taking a public stand on
something you believe is important? The old saw of trying to calculate if the
juice is worth the squeeze is apt.
The right thing is to determine how important it is to
you to get your message out into the world. Not everything any of us believes
rises to the level of needing to have a larger audience simply because in a
digital age anyone can publish or post with ease. Common sense should prevail.
If you believe you'd be embarrassed by what you write, reconsider. Also, keep
in mind that those things you fear will come back to haunt are often not the
ones that do.