Sunday, August 30, 2020

If someone shows us who they are, believe them, don't vote for them

Embellished military career. Allegedly dodged the draft. Misplaced ballot box. Falsified voter names. Abused Congressional staffers. Commitment to doing as little policy work as possible out of fear of alienating one side or another. Condescending and dismissive toward women. Clear and consistent racist behavior.

While each of these might sound like a laundry list of just how polarized and broken politics and politicians in the United States have become, none of these are new.

I am almost finished re-reading Robert A. Caro's four-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Caro's deftness at capturing behind-the-scenes episodes throughout Johnson's life continues to be one of the best examples of reporting and writing. While the books begin with Johnson's childhood, the later volumes focus on his role as a U.S. Representative from Texas' 10th district from 1937 to 1949, as U.S. Senator from 1948 to 1961, and as 37th President of the United States starting in 1963, upon the assassination of his predecessor, John Kennedy.

I bring up the notion that abysmal behavior in politics is nothing new now because the temptation to dismiss any current instances as just par for the course might exist. You know, that's just politics and how the game is played. Such a temptation should be fought.

If we had given over to accepting past injustices because they've always been with us, then it's likely I would have been dismissed out of hand for several jobs because of my religion or my niece might have faced insurmountable obstacles to voting because of her race; or several other nieces would not have been permitted to serve in the military if their sexual orientation had become known.

Holding politicians accountable for unjust, immoral, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and racist behavior should be part of our responsibility as citizens and voters. This goes for politicians of any political affiliation. Johnson was a Democrat. Nixon was a Republican. Each engaged in behavior that certainly doesn't represent the best of us. You can certainly add to the list with your own examples, both past and present.

Granted, we are all flawed. It is a ridiculous assumption that we could ever find candidates who have not made a mistake or two along the way. But most of us can discern, for example, the difference between a mistake and a worldview that governs your behavior. The latter should be disqualifying.

If we have evidence that candidates running for office, at any level, have engaged in reprehensible behavior, it seems a low bar to cross them off our list of people for whom to vote.

In his most recent book, Working, Robert A. Caro includes a chapter on how he got people to be candid with him when he interviewed them for his books. The gist of it is that he learned to "shut up" (his words) and listen rather than interrupt. By letting his subjects fill the silence, he got a fuller and truer sense of who they are and what they had to say. We can most definitely take this into our lives as we listen to political figureheads on all sides and attempt to hear what they say, completely divorced from our own opinions.

There's a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou that says: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." I would add that as they show us unjust behavior, the right thing is to fight to correct such injustices rather than to accept them as a fait accompli.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fighting fake news can start with 3 simple words: 'I don't know'

"I don't know." Getting acquainted with those three words seems more critical than ever, even though we are bombarded daily with globs of information, most of which is fairly accessible.

Nevertheless, when we don't know something - whether it's a detail we can't remember or when someone introduces a piece of new information - our tendency too often is to not take the time to get the facts. Instead, we allow ourselves to continue our unawareness of the underlying facts surrounding that unfamiliar information.

In pre-search engine days, we didn't have the time-saving luxury of using a search engine to look something up. In the mid-1980s, for example, when I struggled to remember the name of the actor who played Sir Thomas More in the movie "A Man for All Seasons," my go-to solution was to call my mother in Virginia, since I knew she was a big fan of the movie. Today, it takes me mere seconds to find the answer on

For those of us who don't limit our news feeds or social networks only to sources or people who share our worldviews, we're regularly faced with posts that seem to contradict our views on a particular topic - whether it has to do with the efficacy of facemasks, the eligibility of a candidate for political office or any number of things. It's easy enough to scroll past those things we think are wrong or that contradict our understanding of something, but we're often left ignorant of whether such posts are factually accurate.

Regardless of the time it takes to check something out, the right thing is to embrace the "I don't know" and to look it up. It's also necessary to both be open to correction from others and take the time to call out when we see something fishy in a post or shared article. Friends do point out to friends when something they post has no basis in fact. This is especially true as the U.S. presidential campaigns heat up in their final few months. There are bound to be factually inaccurate declarations proffered by supporters of candidates from all parties.

When possible, the right thing is to call out friends who speak or post fallacious information, even if we support the same candidate as they do. This might not change someone's view on something, but allowing erroneous information to proliferate without calling it out makes us complicit in allowing the epidemic of misinformation to continue. Calling it out may not stop the spread entirely, but it's a start. Herd immunity may not yet exist for coronavirus, but we can develop it as a weapon against the scourge of fake news.

Luckily, we are not at the mercy of busy phone lines or snail mail in the search for verified facts. Beyond - which can be a decent source to check out hoaxes and bogus internet posts - there are plenty of sources to check out facts when it comes to political discourse. Some of the best include, which is owned by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies (full disclosure: I was among the first group of ethics fellows at Poynter in 2001), and, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The Associated Press ( and Reuters ( are two news agencies that also provide great fact-checking resources.

We have the tools we need to check out the information regularly thrown at us. The right thing is to take the time to check out the facts that we simply do not know and to encourage others to do the same.

And yes, in case you're still wondering, my mother did know who played Thomas More. It was Paul Scofield. You can look it up.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior 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