Category Archives: Plagiarism

The Week in Ethics: The Way Forward from Public Shaming

iPhone April 11, 2014 272 Students in a middle school painted words important to them on rocks placed under a tree. “Patience,” “courage,” “strength,” and “peace” were scattered under the limbs. However the lineup of a yellow heart, “tolerance” and “healing” held my eye during a walk in 2013; they were an antidote to the lack of humanity words as weapons cause.

I thought of those rocks this week after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a new book by journalist Jon Ronson. He recounts recent examples of how far an online posse of righteous shamers can go condemning others’ ethical failings, judgment errors or offensive attempts at humor. Among the stories of social media shaming that Ronson includes are journalist Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism, the racist-interpreted “joke” tweet of PR executive Justine Sacco and the obscene gesture in a photograph in Arlington National Cemetery Lindsey Stone posted of herself on Facebook.

Social media has a piranha capacity to feed off self-sabotage. Rationally, authors know plagiarism is an ethical time bomb, just as news anchors understand lying and distorting facts destroy credibility (the problems of Brian Williams erupted after the book was written). And no one should be surprised that Twitter and Facebook accounts don’t guarantee quiet repositories for acting out unfiltered attempts at humor.

However, not understanding the consequences of enraged social media is to be in denial over the potential consequences of losses — in jobs, trust, reputation, safety (as attacks cut more deeply personal) and even one’s life. It is a double-sided ignorance: Not seeing the piranha waits or recognizing if you and the piranha have become one.

Ronson, writing about the impact of the public shaming on Lehrer, explained:

“People were very keen to imagine Jonah as shameless, as lacking in that quality, like he was something not quite human that had adopted human form. I suppose it’s no surprise we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs….In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone.)”

Ultimately, shaming, Ronson writes, dehumanizes the onlooker as well as the person being shamed.

Shamers get trapped in feedback reinforcement says documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis , whom Ronson quotes. That process, Curtis points out: “… locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”

A world of instant reaction means what we put out on social media stands alone without context or qualification. And rather than our comments accepted as random orphans of thought by people who know us and make allowances, strangers not in our circle can weigh in. To them, whatever we say or do is seen as a representation of who we are. It creates an accountability we dodge at our peril. Ideally, knowing this allows us to operate with more attention to our emotional intelligence — particularly our self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

As for viewers, instant reaction triggers instant judgments, often building off the tone of comments that have gone before. If reaction becomes outrage, are we even aware when it crosses over into shaming, bullying, threatening and deconstructing… fueled by assuming the other person “deserves” whatever we volley at them from behind the net of our anonymity? The irony is that our own thoughtlessness, insensitivity and capacity to injure can occur with the greatest frequency when we are convinced of the rightness of our own point of view.

In Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, author Donna Hicks writes that while people have to earn respect through behaviors and actions, “dignity is a birthright” that everyone deserves. “Treating people badly because they have done something wrong only perpetuates the cycle of indignity,”she writes. “What is worse,” she continues, “we violate our own dignity in the process. Others’ bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return.”

“Dignity” — honoring one’s own and others –an enduring antidote to support diversity of opinion and our humanity.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, July 15, 2015

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her July column is “Why More Companies Are Speaking Out on Social Issues.”





The Congressional Record: Genentech’s House Organ?

Genentech, the biotechnology behemoth, has been caught ghostwriting and mass marketing its ideas on health care reform and putting them into the mouths of a few dozen congressmen, many of whom entered the statements into the Congressional Record as their own.

The repetitiveness of the statements triggered a New York Times reporter’s investigation which found Genentech behind the voice. The reporter also found a link between congressmen making statements Genentech sent and those receiving campaign contributions from Genentech and its parent Roche; a connection Genentech denies.

When an 11-year old is caught doing something wrong, the lament is “but everyone does it;” a lobbyist affiliated with Genentech had the same response: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.” Some congressional staffers and lobbyists weighing in on this agreed: no big deal.

Intellectualizing here is a slippery slope: you can be pragmatic and keep trust, but in this case trust was broken.  Lobbyists are great resources; advancing their companies’ agendas, they seek the sweet spot to anticipate or accommodate what an elected official needs as well as their company. But the system breaks down when the public doesn’t know whose unattributed voice comes out of the leaders’ mouths we elect. It breaks down in an orchestrated effort to enlist as many statements as humanly possible from legislators using Genentech’s words as their own. It breaks down without transparency.

This isn’t a case where the orchestration impacted a vote. But Genentech’s example is illustrative of a larger issue: a potential for an Orwellian spin on groupthink, how influence can manipulate and why the bar needs to be raised. A company’s actions may stop far short of showing “undue influence,” which is illegal. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t corrupting the channels of communication.

The story has another cautionary aspect. When U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. from New Jersey was asked by the New York Times why his statement was nearly identical to so many of his colleagues, he said he’d gotten it from his staff but he didn’t know where they’d gotten the information. “I regret the information was the same,” he said. Any elected official or CEO who doesn’t know where his or her information comes from is inviting manipulation or turning a blind eye to plagiarism. Both explanations undermine the potential for ethical leadership, and both squander trust and credibility.

One would think it is an embarrassing episode for the congressmen involved, but I don’t presume to know anymore what is capable of embarrassing a congressman. And Genentech management, are they embarrassed? Roche acquired the company earlier this year, replacing highly regarded, long-time CEO Arthur Levinson – under whose leadership Genentech regularly won top spots on the most admired, best companies to work for, and other lists – with a Roche executive. Would this have happened, one wonders, under Levinson’s tenure as CEO?

Gael O’Brien,       November 17, 2009

The Week In Ethics