June 2004 Ethics Dunces
If ethics, as a popular definition has it, is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking, being a gold-plated ethics dunce is doing the blatantly wrong thing while everybody is looking. Meet Matt Starr, the Texas Ranger fan who blithely squashed a four-year old boy while chasing a foul ball, and then defiantly refused the crowd’s chanted exhortation for him to do the right thing by giving his ill-gotten gain the ball to the man-handled kid. The game between the Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals was televised, and Starr’s callous conduct was broadcast in all its glory, with running acid commentary from Rangers announcer Tom Grieve. According to the boy’s mother, Starr’s reply to her pointed remark that he had just trampled the toddler to get a souvenir was, “Oh, well.”
Immediate remedial response came from the Rangers and cardinals during the game: both teams gave the young victim bats. Starr still couldn’t take a hint, and held on to his prize. But now, three days later, he has announced that he is sending the ball to the boy, with a letter of apology and a promise to treat him to another game.
What a prince.
Starr’s actions come only after he has been excoriated in the national media, with his actions shown on network and cable TV with the same intense frequency that made Howard Dean’s Iowa scream and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast infamous. Citizens of Starr’s small hometown, Sasche, Texas were speaking of him as the shame of the community. Is there any question that his “change of heart” is the product of the purest self-interest, and that Matt Star would stomp on another four-year old to make this story go away? Sometimes the opportunity to be ethical expires. He didn’t hand over the ball after the trampling; there goes the “I forgot myself in the excitement of the moment” excuse. He didn’t heed the good advice of the crowd; no more opportunity for a timely “You’re right; I was wrong” gesture. He didn’t even get the idea when the opposing teams started showering the child with gifts, thus forgoing the “My God! What was I thinking?” moment. Starr’s sudden contrition is the act of a self-centered and insensitive well, let’s use announcer Grieve’s apt description, jerk who woke up one day and realized that there might be social and financial consequences of becoming a cultural poster boy for warped values. Ethics Scoreboard is not impressed. If being an ethics dunce is doing the blatantly wrong thing for all to see, waiting until you have been properly labeled a national pariah before attempting amends is only further confirmation of the title.
They were on display all over the TV, in newspapers and on the internet: American citizens so determined to pay respects to our 40th President that they waited upwards of four hours to pass by his casket. And American citizens so completely devoid of a cocker spaniel’s comprehension of respect that they did in flip flops, short-shorts, spandex, T-shirts, jogging bras and cut-offs.
It is almost hard to say whether this is an ethics problem or a brain pan problem. Let’s see..you’re going into the Capitol Rotunda to view a flag draped coffin of a U.S. President, and you think, “Hmm. What to wear? I know! My Howard Stern tank top!”
And it wasn’t only teens and twenty-somethings that made these fashion choices, oh no. Grandmothers with fanny packs, veterans in Hawaiian shirts, shorts, black socks and loafers.
The ethical value missing here is respect, fellow citizens. Dignity is also in short supply. Sometimes comfort is not the prime imperative. We can debate, I suppose, what those times are, but is there really a controversy about this one? The mourner-slobs may have been comfy waiting in line, but their appearance and demeanor fouled the scene for everyone, and turned a solemn occasion into just another gawking exercise, and the winding line to file by Ronald Reagan’s coffin into the trek to ride “The Pirates of the Caribbean” at Disney World.
The government should have simply refused entry to individuals who were disrespectfully attired, and announced what would be considered acceptable dress. It is likely that the organizers of Reagan’s farewell were taken by surprise; just when you think public conduct and decorum, not to mention consideration and appreciation of history, the office of the Presidency, and fellow citizens, can’t sink any lower, something like this happens.
It was another one of those instances in which a little disapproval from the ethical members of the assembled might have been both useful and appropriate. Then again, those citizens probably refrained from any confrontations because it they felt it would have been disrespectful, a concept the Ethics Dunces in flip-flops could never grasp.