Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Opinion, Expression and Action: The Ethics Tale of Dog and His Son
Duane Chapman, a.k.a. "Dog the Bounty Hunter," is now firmly locked into the virtual isolation chamber reserved for public outcasts like Michael "Kramer" Richards and Mark Furman, celebrities captured on tape or videotape uttering the taboo N-word. Using the word is considered proof positive that one is racist to the core, unless one is lucky enough to be Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, or a millionaire rapper. In Dog's case, the retribution has been swift and terrible, with his popular cable reality show summarily cancelled by A&E.
But the circumstances of Chapman's disgrace are different from those of Richards and Furman. Furman's taped use of the N-word proved that he had lied under oath as a witness in the O.J. Simpson trial when he said that the slur had never crossed his lips. The tape exposed both his prejudice and his credibility. Richards' racist rant was directed at black audience members during a public performance---a direct and unprovoked assault that was fair game for taping, and certainly sufficient to make judgements about his racial views, if not his sanity. Chapman's use of the word, however, occurred in a conversation with his own son that he had every reason to believe was private. No African-American was involved. Was the bounty hunter's choice of words in such a conversation such despicable conduct that he deserved to lose his television show?
First, let us recall that the following types of conduct are not crimes in the land of the free and the home of the brave:
That does not mean that they are socially acceptable, however, or that any employer is required to tolerate them when they lead to conduct that may anger patrons and customers. Once the tape recording of Chapman's bigoted comments landed on the Internet, he could be fired for what was otherwise a private conversation. The network was probably prudent to do so. But are we really ready to say that it is objectively wrong and unethical for an adult to express racially prejudiced opinions in a private conversation with a family member?
The Scoreboard is not able to accept that. Every American holds opinions, and holding an opinion by itself is not a wrongful act according to our cultural traditions. I had a roommate in law school who privately held white supremacist views, but contributed regularly to the United Negro College Fund. His conduct was ethical; his opinions---well, he might change those over time. Ethical assessments have to be based on a combination of motive and action, not mere thoughts.
Okay: then is it unethical to express biased opinions in private? I believe, and the Founding Fathers believed, that we want to encourage citizens to express all views and subject them to argument, rebuttal and debate. True: when a public figure expresses a denigrating view of a minority group in the press or on television, that's not just opinion; it has consequences. Other members of the public may be persuaded to adopt similar views, and members of the minority may feel oppressed and intimidated. This is conduct, and conduct can be unethical. But a private opinion expressed to a family member is different. I have had family members express homophobic opinions to me in private, and I have argued with them and tried to persuade them to be fair and logical about such issues as gay marriage, with some degree of success. Were they wrong to express their opinions? Is it better for society for such opinions to be hidden, or be revealed to others for comparison and discussion? It seems clear that the latter is better and healthier for the culture, and if it is better and healthier, it can't be unethical.
To be fair, Dog's conversation with his son was hardly an intellectual give-and-take. The bounty hunter was attempting to persuade Tucker Chapman that his African American girlfriend was no good, and while he later claimed that his objections involved character rather than race, he used racial epithets to make his point. Nonetheless, it was a private discussion with someone he trusted, his own son.
And his son, intending to embarrass his father and avenge the slur on his girlfriend, betrayed that trust by taping his father's words. He then made the words public, essentially ending his father's television career (and his mother's as well). This was despicable. I could have embarrassed my gay-leery relatives by publicizing their opinions too, but it would have been an irredeemably rotten thing to do. Their privately expressed opinions did not justify such treatment. Neither did Dog's
I don't like what I know about Duane Chapman much, and now A&E has determined that even though the racial views of a bounty hunter are of dubious relevance to what makes him interesting, its audiences will not like him sufficiently for his show to continue. But being unlikable is not the same as being unethical. It is Tucker Chapman who violated the ethical principles of loyalty, trust, and fairness. It is not Dog the Bounty Hunter, the likely racist, who is the clear ethical offender, but his son.