Friday, October 31, 2014

Speculation about Rushing to Judgement

I wonder if anyone else is feeling the vague sense of discomfort I have been feeling, about a number of very quick, very public dismissals that have been in the news recently. Awhile back, it was the pair of football players. One of them, Ray Rice, was caught on video, delivering a knockout punch to his fiancĂ©, who later married him. Then, one of the real superstars of the league, running back Adrian Peterson, acknowledged punishing his 4 year old with a switch, leaving an array of bruises across his legs and buttocks. There was an almost immediate public outcry as these incidents came to light, and both players were dismissed from their teams in short order, while further investigations were launched.

Public opinion has been virtually unanimous, that the Rice incident was an assault that warrants charges and prosecution. There is less unanimity on the Peterson matter because, while corporal punishment has been increasingly criminalized over recent decades, lots of people still consider "spanking" to be an appropriate and effective tool of parenting. I am one of those who feels that spanking can be responsible, but thinks that Peterson strayed a good way beyond the acceptable.

The other case that has me musing is the more recent incident that saw radio personality Jian Gomeshi fired, due to accusations that he was physically abusive to women in dating situations. This case too seems to have generated judgements that are overwhelmingly critical of Gomeshi, but he has his supporters as well.

My discomfort is with the idea that a person should be summarily dismissed, have their very livelihood taken from them, because of behavior that is in no way related to the work that they do. And my discomfort is increased by the belief that the reason for the dismissals is primarily concern the employers have about public relations, and their fear of being found in violation of political correctness.

I get that abuse is a very serious matter. I also get that, until fairly recently, public figures weren't held accountable at all for what they did in their private lives. That total disassociation of private from public was disturbing as well. There was a time, not so long ago, when a public figure could be found in violation of society's values and might suffer no negative consequences at all. In fact, Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is a kind of throwback in this regard. When there were cries from every quarter for him to resign, he simply refused to do so, and eventually, the expectation that he would step down faded away. That used to be the normal course of events. The powerful simply refused to leave, and very often, even if they were employed by some other entity, they endured.

These days, the pendulum has swung to almost the other extreme. No matter how entrenched in a quality career one may be, a violation of a moral value can end it all overnight. Companies and institutions fall over themselves is the mad rush to disassociate themselves from the now tainted personality. Contracts are cancelled, speaking engagements and endorsements dry up. A beloved figure becomes a pariah.

This worries me. This type of quick action seems to me to be tainted by righteousness and superficiality. It isn't focused at all on addressing the troubling behavior, but only on sweeping it away. As Janay Rice has said, destroying this couple's economic foundation will in no way help them to deal with the domestic violence. If there was any valuing of these individuals - and the many like them among the not-so-famous - don't they deserve help is recognizing, addressing and overcoming their failings? Or is their value simply gone, once they've crossed a particularly sensitive line?

A couple of years ago, a dear colleague was fired by the City of Toronto, because she was found to have violated a policy by having a personal relationship with a client, one of those very sensitive taboos in social services. Now a detailed examination of the situation revealed that, it was quite a stretch to say that she'd violated anything: she'd never worked directly with the "client", the very tenuous client-worker relationship had existed years in the past, with a different program and agency, the other individual was years removed from being a client, and the new relationship had no relation to my colleague's work at all. It was a situation in which the letter of the policy had been brought into question, but in which it was abundantly clear that the spirit of it had been respected.

As I write this, I'm reminded of an historic and very similar example of speedy, righteous judgement, that at the time was lauded and hardly questioned, but which is now recognized for the wrong-headed action it was. In 1967, Mohammad Ali refused to register for the U.S. military draft, citing his opposition to the Vietnam War. This was seen as such a moral affront that in short order Ali was stripped of his championship and denied the right to engage in his profession as a boxer. He was out of boxing for 4 years in the prime of his life because of that, only regaining his license when the action against him was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

No, I'm not equating Ali's anti-war stance with Peterson's beating of his children, Gomeshi's tendency to slap women, or Rice using his wife as a punching bag. I do equate the rushes to judgment that sought to merely punish these individuals, to dismiss and wipe our collective hands of them, rather then to engage them - and their victims - in efforts to understand, solve, grow and heal.


  1. I agree that rush to judgment of this sort is not good--shows us humans as the primate clans we really are. It does nothing to help the individuals involved. It's just an example of mob-think, the worst sort of human behavior. I don't think people's jobs should be on the line for things that have nothing to do with job performance.

    In the instance of Gian Ghomeshi: Our local Miami public radio station recently picked up Q, which runs at 8:00 pm, a time when I am often, for one reason or another, in my car and listening to the radio. It's not an appropriate show for my demographic--it's Toronto- and Canada-centric, and I live in the U.S. in Miami. Most of the bands, actors, and other personalities who are interviewed are people I have never heard of, and have no interest in learning more about. So I often switch to my podcast app on the phone when it's on. I have a small idea of who Gian Ghomeshi is, but no real investment in what he did for a living. So my reaction to his being let go was not deep, other that to feel a bit sorry for him, and very glad that I never dated anyone like him.

    I don't like football at all--didn't grow up watching it, don't know the rules of the game, don't know the names of any but the most obvious teams, have never been to a pro game or a high school game, and the two college games I attended, I was the guest of someone on the "opposing" team, so disgusted by being surrounded by vomiting Yalies. So, not a fan. My reaction to Ray Rice was bemusement: You train a man to run over people as his profession, and when he acts out in his private life, you are shocked?

    The real issue is the adulation that we give public figures. Hero worship should be something we try to outgrow as we advance in age past 14. Why does a football player, or a radio personality, have to stand for anything beyond the competence or incompetence he shows on the job? George W. Bush is probably a better husband than Bill Clinton or, to pick another philanderer, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was a much worse president. One's sexual peccadilloes have little relevance to anybody not involved directly.

    1. Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful comment, Lucie.
      I agree with you that Hero worship is a key factor here. I think that in most work environments, it's understood that people aren't perfect, and that all sorts of unfortunate things happen outside of the work place that don't need to be treated within the workplace.
      It seems that our modern day heros are faced with truly distorted standards: they often get away with things that most of us wouldn't, which allows the negative behaviors to progress. But when a threshold is reached, what a backlash!
      That's a great observation about Ray Rice: that the violence is intentionally cultivated, so it shouldn't come as a total surprise when it overflows. Similarly, we can expect that children elevated to superstar status are likely to suffer dysfunctions as adults.
      Thanks again for being out there, reading and commenting! On the other hand, I'm thoroughly offended to learn that you weren't in the stands every Saturday, cheering Wildly, when I was playing Football at Exeter !-)