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 https://tribunecontentagency.com/contact-us/ 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
There's a U.S. presidential campaign bumper sticker making the rounds that at once purports to take advantage of free speech while at the same time devolving into racist taunting.
In an attempt to play on the word "renege," the bumper sticker shouts out "Don't Renege in 2012," only renege is deliberately misspelled to use a racial epithet. See how clever? The makers of the bumper sticker picked up on what they believed to be a double-entendre.
The problem, aside from the ugly racist undertone, is that the way the bumper sticker is worded, it actually seems to call on people not to reverse - not to renege on--the vote they made for Barack Obama in 2012. (There's small type on the bumper sticker that's more specifically anti-Obama, but who can read the small type from a car's length away?)
It's unclear if masses of people are actually putting these bumper stickers on their cars. The photo posted on Facebook, The Huffington Post and elsewhere all seem to feature the bumper sticker plastered on the back of a gray vehicle that also features a promotional decal for a well-known brand of shotgun.
People posting pictures of the bumper sticker are asking their readers and followers for their opinion. Or, as in the case of a friend whose post was the first I saw, they're just writing an observation like "Sigh" without further comment.
One question that looms large is whether those who might see the bumper sticker should say something to the person who's placed it on his or her vehicle. Just as those using the bumper sticker have a right to free speech, surely others who find it offensive have an equal right to freely speak to how offensive they find the words.
So, what's the right thing to do?
If you harbor a strong feeling about just how offensive something is, the right thing to do is to speak up.
It's no different if you find yourself in a setting when someone offers a joke that is racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic or anything else that you believe goes against your core beliefs about what is appropriate discourse. If you don't find the joke funny, it's acceptable to tell the teller that you find such jokes offensive. Doing that upon the first telling (these jokes tend to come in multiples spread over time) establishes that while someone has a right to spew such stuff, you would prefer that he or she not do it in your company.
Those who display such bumper stickers should know that there are people who find them offensive.
Granted, the accompanying sticker for a shotgun manufacturer might give you some trepidation. So, use your judgment in deciding how you deliver your response.
My suggestion would be to let the motorist know - from a far-enough distance - that you don't plan to renege on your vote in 2012, that you do plan to change how you voted, or that you never voted for the fellow in the first place - but that regardless of your political leanings, racist language does little to advance whatever his cause might be.
When my 13-year-old grandson sent me a link to a YouTube video about Joseph Kony, the video already had been viewed 20 million times. It was posted by the not-for-profit, Invisible Children. Its stated goal was to raise awareness about Kony, a war criminal who has led the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group in Africa, since 1987.
The well-produced video tells a moving story about 30,000 children kidnapped over the past several decades. There's a message to contact influential politicians and celebrities to ask them to help bring awareness and an end to Kony.
By the time I viewed the Kony video, articles had been posted online calling into question exactly what Invisible Children was asking viewers to do, asking whether the video oversimplified the issue, and also closely examining the not-for-profit's 990-form, the disclosure that every not-for-profit in the U.S. has to file annually with the Internal Revenue Service. The backlash was swift and strong, questioning the group's finances and indicating its intentions may be misguided. By the time I went to bed that night, the video had been viewed more than 37 million times.
Fueled partly by teenage enthusiasm, a lot of attention was being paid. Teenagers tweeted their friends and emailed their parents. Word spread.
No one involved in the back-and-forth has questioned whether Kony is a war criminal who should be stopped. The questions have revolved mostly around whether there is something suspect about the operations of this not-for-profit.
Rebecca Rosen, a writer for The Atlantic, addressed head on what happens if those teenagers who got caught up in the frenzy to help to engage in a collective good act somehow feel they were duped. "In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it," she writes. "It is easy to be cynical, but the desire to do good by your fellow person is widespread."
The right thing for anyone trying to sort through the positive and negative response to the Invisible Children campaign - as with any not-for-profit with which you are contemplating engagement - is to learn as much as possible about the organization so you are able to make an informed decision. The information is out there and simple to find. Once informed, whether or not to commit to an organization and its efforts is your choice.
As I am filing this column with my editor, the "Kony 2012" video has been viewed 70,624,061 times. This seems a great teaching moment - not to tell teenagers what to do, but to help them think critically about the decisions they make.
Comedian David Brenner used to tell a joke about lying awake at night when he heard mosquitoes buzzing, fearful that he would get bitten. Then he remembered reading somewhere that only male mosquitoes buzz and that they don't bite. He then figured he could relax whenever he heard buzzing. But, he punch-lined, it's when he heard nothing he knew he had to worry.
It's a joke that plays on the impossibility of knowing the unknowable, but a desire nevertheless to control the outcome. (Forget for a second that while male mosquitoes indeed don't bite, both the male and female do apparently make a buzzing sound. Brenner didn't let this fact stand in the way of a good joke.)
How do you make a decision about doing the right thing when unknowable variables involved?
A reader from the Midwest tells me that he might be changing jobs and relocating to the Northeast sometime over the next several months. He loves his current job, but there's potential for a great opportunity. While he's a finalist for the new job, he hasn't been offered it yet, so he's not 100 percent sure he'll be moving away. He expects to hear within the next two to three weeks.
As his future is up in the air, he finds himself being offered positions of increasing importance, most recently to serve as a board member for a foundation in his current city. If he accepts the board seat, he knows there's a better than even chance he will have to resign the position and inconvenience the rest of the board which will soon have to replace him. On the other hand, should he limit his participation on this board - and with other local opportunities - on the chance that he will relocate?
"If I don't move, I've cut myself off from some opportunities by saying no to the chances," he says. "If I say yes and do move, I'm running the risk of being perceived as duplicitous of misleading."
He wants to know if it would be wrong to accept the board position knowing there's a chance he may soon move away.
If it's a board with which he really wants to work and he believes he can do some good, then I believe he should proceed with the opportunity to serve on the board and not cut himself off from such opportunities entirely.
Since he is expecting to hear about the new job offer within a few weeks, the right thing is to let the foundation members know that he needs a few weeks to consider their offer. That will give him time to find out if he's gotten the new job. If he gets the job and plans to take it, he can turn down the offer to sit on the board or let the members know of the offer and that since he would be leaving the region within a few months, he feels it best to decline the offer. That gives the board the opportunity to respond with either a thank you, or a request that he give them whatever time he has over the next few months.
But he needn't give a response until the silence about his prospective position turns into an audible buzz.
Occasionally, when I give an assignment to a class, I ask them to execute the assignment in a particular order.
"Choose a target publication for the article you're writing," the assignment might start, "and then study that publication and develop your article specifically for its audience."
Of course, once they've written their articles, I have no real way to tell if they did it in the order I asked. I just set the rules, ask them to follow them and trust that they will.
But my goal is to make sure that they know what my expectations and desires are for the assignment.
In a business setting, when bosses don't make the rules clear, employees might end up either fearing for their jobs because of an unintended rules violation or they might take advantage of the ambiguity to their own favor.
A reader is facing such ambiguity at her workplace.
After a small retail business was sold to new owners, she writes, many of the old-time employees continued to take advantage of a discount in place under the former owners. The old policy allowed only for discounts to employees, not to family or friends.
My reader is a newer employee, although she started before the business changed hands. She believes that the discount given to employees may be being given to members of employees' families without the owner's knowledge.
"All of the other employees take advantage of the discount for their family members as a sort of wink, wink practice," she writes. "I find this practice dishonest."
Her son tells her that she should just keep quiet and let the new owners find out for themselves what is going on.
"This just doesn't seem right," she writes. "But when I think of saying anything to the new owners, I feel really disloyal to the other employees. What should I do?"
My reader is not certain that other employees are extending the employee discount beyond themselves. She strongly suspects that they are, however.
Since the new owners have not made any statement about the status of the employee discount, my reader has a perfect opportunity to address her concern while minimizing the risk of being disloyal to her fellow employees.
The right thing for her to do is to ask the new owners for clarification about the policy for herself. She needn't bring up her suspicions when she asks, but merely can pose the question about the policy and whether it extends to family members as well.
The right thing for the new owners is to make the discount policy clear.
Of course, employees may say they are buying something for themselves when they really are buying them for family members, but unless the owners place a limit of how many discounts you can take in a given time period, there's no real way to police what employees do with the stuff once they buy it. In the best of all worlds, the owners would be clear on the policy and employees would have the integrity to honor the rules.