Topic: Society

Harry Belafonte and the Ethics of Association

Pitcher Kris Benson was just traded from the New York Mets to the Baltimore Orioles, and some feel that the Mets’ willingness to part with the talented young hurler was enhanced by the prospect of ridding the team of his flamboyant and outspoken wife. An actress/model who once said that if her husband were ever unfaithful to her she would have sex with all 25 of his Mets team mates, Anna Benson was indignant when apprised of this speculation,. “He’s not responsible for what I do, and I’m not responsible for what he does,” she said. “I have my own career, and it should be separated.” True enough. But that doesn’t mean that it is right for Mrs. Benson to pretend that what she does and says have no impact on how people regard her husband. When someone is associated with another individual or an organization, one accepts ethical duties towards them, and one of those duties is not to do them harm by recklessly behaving in objectionable ways.

The duty arises in part from the principle of cognitive dissonance, identified by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. When two things are associated in a person’s mind, how that person regards one of the things will necessarily affect the individual’s opinion of the other. If your hero does something you find despicable, either you will lose some esteem for your hero, acquire some tolerance for his despicable act, or both. If a public figure you admire endorses a policy position, you are more likely to adopt the position regardless of its flaws. If someone you detest endorses the same position, you are less likely to accept it regardless of its virtues. Cognitive dissonance isn’t necessarily fair or rational, but Festinger showed that it works at the subconscious level, and is all but unavoidable. This means that Anna Benson’s conduct can indeed change the way people feel about her husband, and she has an ethical obligation to take that into consideration. It is irrelevant that it she feels that what a wife does shouldn’t adversely or (or positively) affect her husband. It does.

Ask John Kerry.

Or ask the American Association of Retired Persons. It had good reasons to make calypso singer/civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte its 2005 “Man of the Year;” few senior citizens have worked more tirelessly for charitable and social causes than he. But when Belafonte accepted the honor, he agreed to link his name to the AARP, and acquired an ethical obligation to take care not to inflict harm upon it. When Belafonte went to Venezuela and pronounced President Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world,” he ignored that obligation. As a result, the AARP has lost hundreds of members who resigned from the organization in protest of Belafonte’s remarks. Now, Belafonte has hardly been a model of temperate speech over the years; a while ago he called Colin Powell an “Uncle Tom” and “the House Nigger.” It is fair to note that the AARP, which has repeatedly and persuasively stated that it did not choose to honor Belafonte for his political views, should have had some inkling that the singer was prone to inflammatory statements. Still, he should have kept the welfare of the organization in mind, just as Whoopie Goldberg should have realized that she was harming her employer Slimfast, which had hired her as its 2004 spokesperson, when she launched an obscene tirade against the President at a public event that year. The company fired her; not because she didn’t have a right to say whatever she wanted, but because she was exercising that right in a way that harmed its business. Belafonte’s tirades actually hurt two organizations, both of which are now deep in damage control. The other is UNICEF, which employs him in Danny Kaye’s old job as spokesman.

Cognitive dissonance works the other way too, from organization to individual. This is what Ted Kennedy was trying to establish when he attempted to tie Supreme Court designate Joseph Alito to a racist and sexist article published by a Princeton organization he once belonged to. Implying that the views of the article’s author were attributable to Alito because they belonged to the same organization was an absurd stretch (as was the contention by Kennedy and other Democrats that the same organization’s official opposition to co-ed education and affirmative action was indistinguishable from being “anti-woman and anti-black”), but Kennedy was invoking the power of cognitive dissonance. Ironically, that power turned on the senior Senator from Massachusetts when it was subsequently revealed that Kennedy currently was a member of a male-only Harvard college “social” club (that is, drinking club) and had been for decades. He quickly resigned, leaving a staff member to make the desperate claim that his membership in a male-only club was in no way similar to Alito’s former membership in a group that opposed co-ed education. It was, of course. Both organizations held the potential of harming their individual members through cognitive dissonance and the power of association.

Belafonte should follow Kennedy’s example and relieve both the AARP and UNICEF from the burden of their association with him. The groups are trapped; if they take action against Belafonte, they will lose the support of his admirers and those who share his political opinions: more cognitive dissonance. Only his graceful and voluntary withdrawal can begin to undo the harm he did by forgetting that when he agreed to an association, he was agreeing to care about the reputations of others besides himself.

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