The School Bus and the Banality of Evil

Reprinted from Ethics Newsline

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

By now, you are no doubt familiar with the story of the 68-year-old bus monitor in Greece, New York, who was taunted viciously by four seventh-graders in an incident captured on a student’s cell-phone. But in case you missed it, here’s an overview:

Karen Klein has spent decades as a bus driver and monitor in the town of Greece, a large (population about 100,000) suburb of Rochester. About three weeks ago, she was verbally set upon by four young men, who taunted her with vile ridicule of her weight, graphic threats involving weapons and breaking into her house, and even a sneering reference to the suicide of her son a decade ago.

Klein was reduced to tears but did not respond with anger to the taunting, which persisted for about 10 minutes.

The incident was captured on a student’s cell-phone and posted to YouTube, where it went viral. Something about the event touched nerves worldwide, and an internet-based fundraising effort intended to raise $50,000 for a vacation for Ms. Klein soon raised more than 10 times that amount.

Meanwhile, the ramifications of the event got even uglier, with death threats pouring in against the students and their families. Police appealed for calm, noting that death threats are a form of bullying, too. Late last week, as noted below in this week’s Ethics Newsline, the school district suspended the students for a year. Criminal charges were not brought, in part because of Ms. Klein’s reluctance to press them.

The story raised appropriate speculation about the repulsive actions of the young men who, even though they legally are children, obviously should know better. The story also caused some in the news business to scratch their heads over why, in a world full of repulsive actions mercilessly recited in the drumbeat of every day’s headlines, this incident captured international attention, headlines in major newspapers, and coverage by all major U.S. television networks.

Well, here’s what captured my attention: Unlike the vast majority of stories that flicker across my terminal each day, this one didn’t carry the dateline of an unfamiliar city or exotic war zone. It didn’t feature frightening caricatures of thundering menace, such as uniformed soldiers or gang members bristling with muscle and tattoos. Instead, it happened in the same town where I went to middle school. For all I know, it could have been on the identical bus route I took. And the perpetrators were children about the same age as one of my sons. For all I know, they could be the children of my classmates from a generation ago.

To co-opt a phrase that was applied famously in an entirely different context, the Greece bus incident drives home the “banality of evil.”

German political theorist Hannah Arendt used that terminology to back her theory that atrocities, including those committed by the Nazis, are committed not just by fanatics or psychotics, but by regular people who simply become acclimatized to the deplorable.

Various research projects have bolstered the idea that the complex dynamics of human interaction can send ethics and morals off the rails. The notorious Milgram experiments, which were conducted at Yale shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann (the subject of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil), demonstrated that lab assistants were willing to torture subjects if an authority figure assured them that he would assume responsibility for their actions.

About a decade later, the Stanford Experiments demonstrated that students recruited to become “guards” in a mock prison could succumb to peer and supervisor pressure and begin brutalizing their captives.

We know that interactive social pressures can produce the most extraordinary changes in people. Even the bullied Karen Klein said as much when she told CNN that she does not believe her harassers were bad kids, deep down, “but when they get together, things happen.”

But the looming question is why things sometimes don’t happen. Other students on the bus chose not to participate (although none apparently took action to stop the harassment), and one felt moved to post the video.

Not all Germans were Nazis, and not all participants in the Milgram experiment delivered the shocks per their supervisor’s instructions.

One subject who refused to carry out instructions in the Milgram experiment was Joseph Dimow, an editor and columnist who attributed his lack of cooperation to his upbringing and education, which he said made him sympathetic to the oppressed and willing to challenge assumptions.

Is that one of the keys to unlocking the puzzle of how apparently ordinary children, described as “not bad” even by their victim, could lapse into such horrifying behavior?

Had they somehow missed the combination of upbringing and education that should have cued them to throw the off-switch as their behavior devolved?

What sort of training in ethics, critical thinking, or some other area could have prevented this incident? I don’t have the answer, but I’m hoping you do. Please weigh in using the comments box below.

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics

Anthony Weiner and the Consequences of Consequentialism


by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

There are very few things left uncovered (literally) in the sad unraveling of Rep. Anthony Weiner — except possibly the mechanics of our ethical justification of our interest in the story. (”Our” meaning we, the public, and our surrogates, the media.)

A case like Weiner’s is clearly catnip to the media and it probably should be. The apparent derailment of a public official seems to fit all of the existing definitions of news that have existed since the founding of the institution in colonial America — and an important function of the news business in the eyes of the framers of the Constitution was scrutiny of the government and the people who comprise it.

But tucked into an assumption like the one I just made is the consequentialist flag that we wave when we say, “Normally, we wouldn’t be interested in this sort of thing, except….”

Consequentialist arguments are powerful and often semantically built as above, resting on the foundation that an exception to the normal way of doing things will produce an outcome that justifies the exception. Consequentialist arguments are powerful because at the end of the debate they often trump the counter-view because of an inherent inconsistency in the framework of the proposition. The non-consequentialist, Kantian-type argument — that we should stick to the rules because we can’t predict consequences — is really a consequentialist argument once you peel away the top layers.

After all, by predicting that you can’t predict a consequence, I am predicting a consequence.

In any event, consequentialism in the coverage of politicians’ sexual escapades has always been the primary justification for extraordinary excursions into what would normally be private territory. In modern history, the consequentialist argument went on steroids in the 1988 U.S. presidential election, when the Washington Post’s Paul Taylor famously popped the “have you committed adultery?” on candidate Gary Hart.

Hart not only denied being adulterous but challenged reporters to follow him around and check his claim, which of course they did, and the rest is history.

The most salient result was not Hart’s withdrawal from a race he might have won, but the rewriting of the unofficial rulebook to make the adultery question fair game.

Indeed, the consequentialism invoked was a convincing argument: We showed that Gary Hart possesses extraordinarily bad judgment: He lied and challenged us to catch him in the lie and then behaved recklessly. Is this the type of person we want leading the free world? Ergo, the ‘have you committed adultery?’ question is a public service.

The media-savvy Bill Clinton, no stranger to scandal, devised a way to circumvent the Hart dilemma by telling the truth, sort of. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” he admitted past “problems” in his marriage but provided no further specifics. In effect, he inoculated himself by giving himself a small dose of the scandal virus, waited for the malaise to pass, and won two terms (during which he suffered a relapse).

In the Wiener case, there were other factors at play in the construction of the consequentialist argument for coverage of all of the details. His techno-sexual derangement probably wasn’t enough to unseat him, at least via the details that initially emerged; he was, after all, not the leader of the free world and, as his supporters (initially) claimed, he had a good record in issues related to the welfare of his district, making his digital dalliances irrelevant. Rather, it was the fact that he clearly and artlessly lied about it that propped up the consequentialist proposition that someone who lies so brazenly can’t be trusted, and if he lies about one thing he’ll lie about everything, therefore our scrutiny was justified….


And here’s another reason why consequentialist ethical arguments are so powerful: Retrospective arguments are easy to make because you get to shoot the arrow into the wall first and paint the bull’s eye around it later. But such simple cause-and-effect reasoning circumvents some of the nuances of the issue, including whether all aspects of a public person’s life are legitimately public business, and whether a public official is obliged to copy a page from St. Augustine and fill 13 books with his confessions.

Is lying an automatic disqualification for public life? That’s a complex ethical question obscured by the extremes of the Wiener case. Some would argue, for example, that it’s acceptable to lie under certain circumstances when confronted with a gratuitous threat — an intrusion that is unjustified to begin with. Others would contend that a “no comment” or a Clinton-esque prevarication (”that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) is just as bad as a lie because it serves to divert attention and inquiry from a matter of legitimate public concern.

My point is assuredly not to defend Wiener. And I’m not saying the whole sorry mess does not justify media coverage, because that’s clearly not the case and I am just as clearly covering it right now.

What I do want to posit is the notion that it wouldn’t hurt to take a close look at the consequentialist arguments we employ when negating a public official’s desire for certain boundaries in his or her private life.

The main argument deployed by Kantian non-consequentialists is that you can invent almost any rationale to justify an action, as was the case in some tangents of the Weiner story. Disclosure of his wife’s pregnancy became a matter of public interest because it was marginally part of the story. A young woman who was apparently an innocent bystander — she was, she says, sent one of Weiner’s digital images by mistake — became the focus of full-tilt media scrutiny because she was “part of the story.”

There is almost literally no end to the “part of the story” thread if you get to make up the rationale as you go along or, even more conveniently, after the fact. That’s not always a bad thing; personally, I think Gary Hart’s judgment is suspect and that Anthony Weiner is unfit for Congress and possibly mentally unwell. Both make insincere victims because they brought much of the scrutiny on themselves — Hart by challenging the media and Wiener by using an obviously insecure medium to transmit messages that would be inappropriate in any context (although it does raise the interesting question of whether boorish behavior online is any difference in substance from similar communication by telephone or in person at a bar).

At the same time, I know many serious-minded and capable men and women who have avoided public service — even county and local elective and appointed offices — because of the lurking fear that they could not survive living in a glass house because anyone who wants to throw a stone can confect a convenient excuse for doing so.

I realize this isn’t the first time the question has been asked, but where do we draw the line between private lives and public interest? What are the main consequentialist factors in an action that disqualifies someone from elected office? Is there a calculus we can use to justify an intrusion we normally wouldn’t make into what we normally would consider a private aspect of life?

I’d like to hear your thoughts. What’s your formula for finishing the statement, “Normally we wouldn’t publish details of someone’s sexual indiscretions, except….”