Sunday, September 09, 2012

If you say it, they will come

Typically, I don't write about politics. There's no doubt that questions of right and wrong behavior abound when it comes to the behavior of some elected officials. One reason for my hesitation is that the minute a question is raised about the behavior of a member of a particular party, the vitriol that secretes from members of the other party arrives in abundance. The blinders go up and it's difficult for many to admit shortcomings among their own.

It's a challenge to write about ethical behavior among politicians without being accused of being partial to one party over the other. Thankfully, two high-profile examples of curious ethical behavior come from each major political party, and they closely mirror one another.

The first is the seemingly continuous loop that Democrats seem to play of Republican candidate Mitt Romney saying, "I like being able to fire people." He said the words, of course, but only after a lead up that made it clear that he was talking about insurance companies that might not do a good job. That he said he likes to fire service providers who don't provide good service is a sentiment that many of us can embrace. The full context of his comments, however, was conveniently lost so his opponents could make him appear to be a villainous ogre who took joy in the pain of de-jobbing hard-working citizens.

The second resulted in the "We Built It" theme night on the first night of the Republican National Convention. It alluded to the snippet of a comment Barack Obama was making about how people who built businesses didn't succeed entirely on their own but instead relied on infrastructure provided by other taxpayers. Just as "I like being able to fire people" came at the end of a longer comment, Obama's "You didn't build that" came at the end of his talk about the support businesses might get along the way toward success.

Each party was shocked, simply shocked, that the other had taken its candidate's words out of context and used them to make him appear to be saying something he wasn't. Given the equanimity of the infractions, the claims of shocked-ness seem disingenuous at best.

The right thing is not to deliberately mislead people to get them to behave in a way you want them to behave. But anyone who has purchased something based on the skills of a slick salesperson knows it's naive to believe such behavior is not commonplace. We may like to believe that the people we choose to govern us would rise to a higher level of behavior. But we don't always get what we want. It turns out that politics really ain't beanbag.

If ethics truly is "how we behave when we decide we belong together" as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), perhaps politicians have agreed that deliberate misleading is how they've decided to behave with one another.

But for those not in politics who haven't agreed on such behavior, the right thing is not to take any political ad at face value. Candidates post policy papers online on most every issue you can imagine. And each party posts its platform online for all to read. The responsible thing is to dig deeply enough to determine which candidate best meets what you want of a leader. 

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.


yawningdog said...

Romney's quote makes a completely different point when taken in context while President Obama's point is really the same in and out of context. His 'you didn't build that' statement referring to the roads and bridges around your business shows that he believes that government is essential in everyone's one success. Well, those same roads and bridges are in front of all the failed businesses as well as the successful ones. Infrastructure plays a small role in whether or not a business survives. Also all of those roads and bridges were not built by the government; they were built by the tax dollars of every business and their employees that came before.

Anonymous said...

It would appear that yawning dog has a viewpoint of substance

Anonymous said...

I don't usually want someone else to speak for me, but in this case, Yawningdog completely covered the bases by correctly pointing out the real difference in Democrats trying to (again) use only PART of Romney's statement, while clearly, Obama, as has been his wont, takes every opportunity to take successful businessmen and "the wealthy" to task by trying to take away from their success by saying they wouldn't be successful without "infrastructure".

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Kerry said...

The quotes are interesting when contrasted: Obama emphasizes that success depends on the contributions of multiple people, while Romney emphasizes that success depends on contributions from the "right" (I'll allow the reading of both, potentially exclusive, senses--"correct" and "conservative"--here) people. Pretty telling.

Anonymous said...

Despite your prediction that neither side could complain of bias, the prior comments show that blinders are still on. It's like a kindergarten battle, with each saying the other side's lies are worse than ours. It is unfortunate that so much of the electorate will base their votes on advertising and pre-conceived ideological bias.

Anti Money Laundering said...

An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it.

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