Ethics-Muddling 101: Making Heroes Out of Jerks and Thugs
It was more than a little confusing to hear cable news talking-head Chris Matthews proclaim the death of free speech in America and then to observe his evidence for that conclusion. Exhibit A was the tasering of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer, and Exhibit B was Fox’s bleeping of “goddamned” in Sally Field’s impassioned Emmy acceptance speech. Whatever it is about cable that turns people into shameless hysterics has clearly gotten to Matthews, once a smart and incisive analyst. But he exemplifies a paradox that arises often in American society, where the public sympathizes with those who have engaged in wrongful or unethical conduct because authorities responded over-zealously to behavior that clearly deserved a response. Meyer, Field and even the “Jenna Six” have benefited from this phenomenon, which has the unfortunate side-effect of turning jerks and thugs into martyrs, making their unethical conduct seem tolerable, and eroding the public consensus regarding established ethical standards.
Let’s take the most trivial example, Fields. Her juvenile statement upon winning an Emmy, to the effect that if mothers ran the world there would be no wars (blithely ignoring the reality of world history, Golda Meier, Indira Gandhi, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher and Ma Barker), had its embedded profanity removed, apparently because Fox feared a possible fine from the hyper-sensitive FCC. It would have probably been kinder to Fields to bleep the rest of her statement and keep the profanity, but it was hardly “censorship” as Matthews would have it—merely an example of bad judgement by someone with an itchy finger on the bleep button.
Indeed, Fields displayed lousy manners and incivility, not to mention arrogance, by turning her acknowledgement of an acting award for a non-political role into a platform for a political declaration that was out of place. Earlier, aspiring Joan Rivers clone Kathy Griffin managed to get herself bleeped by saying “suck it, Jesus.” Again, a rude and pointless comment not remotely funny enough to justify the number of Christians it would outrage who, reasonably, didn’t expect to have their religion attacked on a show that gives out awards to reality shows. A debate about the wisdom of editing such statements is reasonable, though in an era when actors and singers increasingly appear unable to restrain themselves from saying “fuck,” “shit” and worse on live shows, there should be no confusion about where the blame lies. The right to free speech does not excuse being gratuitously boorish, vulgar or rude in any public setting. If there were no performers who were self-centered, ill-mannered jerks, there would be no anti-ill-mannered jerk procedures to abuse. Once, most of television was broadcast live, yet no actors felt the need to be profane or obscene. It was called dignity. Consideration. Respect. Ethics.
University of Florida student Andrew Meyer is a self-promoting loud-mouth who is clearly seeking to become a professional self-promoting loud-mouth, a career made suddenly possible by the advent of cable TV and the internet. He hijacked a question and answer session after a John Kerry speech at his school and turned it into a forum for an endless rant. Meyer went beyond the time-limit, lectured Kerry instead of asking him a real question, ignored pleas to make his point and wrap it up, and generally emulated the famous Monty Python travel agency skit in which an Eric Idle character begins an interminable monologue that forces his captive listener to call the police. Shutting Meyer’s microphone off didn’t shut him up; security police taking him into custody didn’t stop him from screaming and flailing around, and finally the frustrated officers tasered him.
Yes, they over-reacted. That still doesn’t make Meyer a martyr for free speech. Indeed, people like Meyer often intentionally provoke authorities into using excessive force to attract the sympathy of gullible advocates like Matthews. Nobody intended to infringe on Meyer’s right to speak. But he went beyond speech to making a public nuisance of himself, being rude and disrespectful to an invited guest who happened to be a U.S. Senator and to his fellow students, and generally behaved intolerably. Like Eric Idle’s loony blabbering about “Torremolino’s” and “Watney’s Red Barrel,” he needed to be dragged away or he would never have stopped.
If Matthews wants to do a show on law enforcement personnel using tasers too frequently and carelessly, great; that’s a fair issue. If he wants to discuss whether it makes sense to bleep profanity from a live broadcast when the same words are regularly heard on “Law and Order,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and many other network shows, that’s a legitimate issue too. But Matthews knows that arguing issues isn’t as likely to keep viewers riveted as shouting about people being mistreated by the powers that be. Thus he makes the jerks look blameless, and pretends that their conduct was acceptable when it wasn’t.
And celebrated jerks beget more jerks. The University of Colorado’s student newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Collegian, decided to show its solidarity with Meyer by publishing, not an editorial, but the words, “Taser This!” followed by
Is this respectable journalism? Uh, no. Protected speech? In a newspaper anything and everything is protected by freedom of the press, but “Fuck Bush” has all the communication value of a belch or a scream, and could be Constitutionally prohibited under many circumstances. It is also gratuitously vulgar, rude, and dumb. Any commercial newspaper that printed such a “view” would have a new editorial board in about 60 seconds. A college newspaper represents a student body, and has a duty to represent it responsibly. This stunt just makes one wonder what kind of an education produces an editorial board that could think this kind of conduct is sensible or right.
At least Move-On.Org knows where to concentrate its recruitment efforts.
The editors’ conduct was unethical, and if the university foolishly swooped down and burned all the copies of the Collegian or shut down the paper or expelled the editors, it would still be still be unethical. They would still be jerks. But Chris Matthews and his ilk would quickly move to make the jerks martyrs and the conduct heroic.
Now civil rights protestors are making martyrs out of the “Jenna Six,” marching in their name against racial injustice in Alabama. Who are the Jenna Six? The Jenna Six are African American students at Jena High School in Central Louisiana, and they are also young thugs. They beat up one white student and put him in the hospital. They were expelled; of course they were expelled. Wouldn’t six students of any race at your high school have been expelled if they ganged up on a lone student—for any reason—and beat him unconscious? They sure would have at my high school, Arlington Public High School in Massachusetts. And rightly so.
The Jenna Six were alsoinitially charged with attempted murder. Well, I think that’s excessive, but it’s not indefensible. Six kids beating up one could easily result in a fatality, and it certainly is criminal conduct. Anyone who “supports” the Jenna Six supports violence and recklessness. These students aren’t heroes, and they aren’t martyrs. They are, by definition, dangerous.
What am I leaving out? Several things. The beating incident was the culmination of inept and probably racist responses by the high school’s administrators when some white students hung nooses from a campus tree that had traditionally marked “white” territory to warn off black students from encroaching on their space. [It must be noted, however, especially since few media reports have bothered to make this clear, that the beating of the white student by the Jenna Six arose out of a completely separate and unrelated dispute, not the noose incident.] The school board felt that the principal over-reacted by expelling the white students for this overt threat and reference to lynching, so it reduced the penalty to suspensions only. This was bad judgement, for sure. In a mixed-race school with underlying racial tensions, the strongest and most unambiguous message needed to be sent, and the message sent instead was, “This is no big deal.” But that doesn’t change the fact that expulsion for a gang of six students beating up one student is 100% justified. Nor does the fact that the noose incident was mishandled make the actions of the black students any more acceptable.
It also appears that in a neighboring town, a gang of white students who beat up a black kid received negligible punishment. That does not make the conduct of the black students any less reprehensible either
By all means, let’s protest for equal treatment under the law. Let’s march for more competent officials; march for a no-tolerance policy for racial intimidation in schools; march against bias in law enforcement, and against racial injustice.
But don’t march for the Jenna Six. That just undermines our values. They earned their punishment. There’s nothing admirable about them.