Topic: Society

An Epidemic of Shattered Trust

We have ethical duties to those whom we might loathe or disagree with. But it is certainly easier to rationalize breaching those duties when we can assert that our victim “had it coming.” Thus almost nobody is shedding any tears for Jan Hall, a Florida elementary school teacher who has been branded a racist in her community because someone decided that he or she was justified in publicizing a confidential letter Hall had written to her Congressman.

Her letter was frank, inflammatory, opinionated and yes, could have been legitimately interpreted as racist. It doesn’t matter. Under no conditions and by no justification should her letter have ended up published in the Spanish language newspaper, El Nuevo Dia. She is now out of a job; her school fired her. That is wrong, too, though it had very few options once the letter was published.

In her letter, Hall complained about many things that one can easily imagine frustrating an elementary school teacher in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual community. She was critical of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Haitians, and made allegations that anyone of those nationalities, as well as many others, could legitimately find offensive. Perhaps the congressman found it offensive, too. Probably he did.

Certainly someone at the Congressman’s office did, because they leaked it to the Spanish press.

There are people that each of us must have a right to communicate our thoughts, concerns, problems, dreams and secrets to with the absolute certainty that the communications will not be revealed to anyone else. Family…lovers…trusted friends. Lawyers…doctors…religious counselors. There are others, and among them are our elected representatives. That includes everyone who works for the elected representatives as well, for they are bound by the same duty of confidentiality.

The Congressman or his staff were entitled to dispute Ms. Hall’s reasoning and her opinions by word or letter. But using her confidential letter to harm and embarrass her is absolutely without justification. Misguided, mistaken and even hateful opinions are nonetheless subject to the obligations of confidentiality. We all depend on confidentiality; sometimes our lives depend on it. Every time some self-righteous vigilante, usually with an equally self-righteous assist from the media, deems it acceptable to violate a confidence in the interests of “the public good” or because “the public has a right to know” or simply to disgrace an adversary, the bonds of trust that keep confidentiality and privacy part the legacy of freedom are weakened.

Exposing Jan Hall’s impolitic opinions are not worth the cost…to her, to us, to American society. She has joined Marilyn Monroe, Governor Pataki, and many less famous Americans who have recently fallen victim to an epidemic of unethical conduct.

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