Sunday, May 06, 2012

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

On April 26, Joel Ward scored 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 epithets.

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 themselves.

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. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

No comments:

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...