The Ethicist Who Wears the Black Hat

I wear the black hat

There is no way that I won’t read a book by Chuck Klosterman.  Still, that sentence’s double negative reveals my ambivalence.  In some ways, CK and I doppelgängers: we’re the same age, moved cross-country in our adult lives (me: born and raised in Brooklyn, then lived for 4 years in Minnesota and now, St Louis; Klosterman: born and raised in North Dakota, now lives in Brooklyn), grew up on and still defend heavy metal when other aspects of our lives would seem to suggest—even demand—more highbrow predilections (such as the use of the phrase “highbrow predilections”).   Certainly this blog is indebted to Klosterman’s groundwork as that rare writer who is a popular culture specialist who is also firmly a part of popular culture itself.  Yes, he sells way more books than I do, but I is a English professor.

Yet Klosterman’s writing is also sometimes exasperating, including his current gig as the New York Times Ethicist and his new book, I Wear the Black Hat.  And they are exasperating for opposite reasons.  In his Ethicist column, Klosterman prevaricates and dithers for most of the response, before finally settling on an ethical verdict—one that often seems shortsighted at best and just wrong at worst.  Klosterman’s cultural analyses, on the other hand, are consistently overconfident and make sweeping generalizations—Klosterman would have written this paragraph’s topic sentence this way: “What is so weird is that they are always exasperating for exactly opposite reasons.” Although often, he  also has a good point.  In their approaches, tone, worldview, and conclusions, the Ethicist and the author of I Wear the Black Hat seem to be two completely different personae of Chuck Klosterman.

Or, better yet: two different Chuck Kloster-men.


Let’s look at Kloster-man A, the Ethicist.  Sometimes, he is just wrong, such as his response to a former college student who writes that he would “sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor.”

As usual, the the Klostethicist dithers for a surprisingly long time:

As I read and reread this question, I find myself fixated on the idea that this must be unethical, somehow. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction could be described like this: Every professor is operating from the position that any assignment she makes is exclusive to that particular class, even if she doesn’t expressly say so at the onset (in other words, it’s simply assumed that work done for a specific class will be used only for that specific class). It’s as if you were breaking a rule that was so over-the-top obvious it may not have been overtly outlined. But you know what? The more I think this over, the more I find myself agreeing with your position. I don’t think this is cheating. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as “genius,” and it might get you expelled from some universities. Yet I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.

I look at it like this: You were essentially asked two questions that shared a common answer. The fact that you could see commonalities between unrelated intellectual disciplines is a point in your favor. Some might call your actions self-plagiarism, but the very premise of stealing your own creative property is absurd. You’re not betraying the public’s trust. It seems strange only because the assignments involve a degree of creativity. If this had been a multiple-choice physics test you failed to study for — yet were still able to pass, based on knowledge you acquired from an applied-math class taken the previous semester — no one would question your veracity.

It’s possible to argue that you were “cheating yourself” and wasting your own academic experience — but that’s not an ethical crossroads. That’s more of an existential dilemma over the purpose of a college education that (in all probability) you paid for. In the abstract, the notion of using the same paper twice feels wrong — and if you contacted your old school and told them this anecdote, it would most likely cite some rule of conduct you unknowingly broke. But fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics. You fulfilled both assignments with your own work. You’re a clever, lazy person.

In other words, Verdict: ethical. Or not unethical. What Klosterman does not acknowledge, however, is that this person’s actions, in addition to  “cheating himself,” which is apparently not unethical, is that self-plagiarism dupes instructors—the former student did not ask permission, knowing that he was breaking the rules.  But OK, why is it a rule? Because it cheats the instructor, who wants original work, and more importantly, it cheats his classmates, who, through no fault of their own, did not have the luck to land two assignments similar enough for the same paper.  The students in those other classes did all of their work, essentially twice as much, as the letter writer. This person did half of it, for the same credit, at the expense of his teachers and peers.  Despite the dissembling, the answer was still wrong.

Here,  a person writes that he or she volunteers “for a program that serves homeless and at-risk American Indian people.”

He or she continues:

I sometimes sort and distribute their mail. In a separate community role, I advocate for infant and maternal health, because infant mortality rates in the Native community are three times higher than average. While distributing mail, I found an “introductory” infant-formula package for a Native mom. My first instinct, knowing the proven health advantages of breast-feeding, was to toss the package into the garbage, which seemed unethical. But it seems more unethical, given the higher infant mortality rates, to give her formula marketing materials without providing her the information that breast-feeding is better for her baby.

The Ethicist’s response–more evasion:

While the solution to this particular dilemma is straightforward, the broader question it raises is not. You have two unrelated jobs — mail delivery and advocating for infant health. So what do you do if the requirements of one contradict the responsibilities of the other? My advice would be to consider the worst case within each ethical framework and ignore whichever system has the least damaging real-world potential. Throwing away someone else’s mail is absolutely unlawful. (In this case, it’s defined as obstruction of mail and would be treated as a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, there’s obviously nothing illegal about failing to tell someone that formula is less healthful than breast milk. But can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril? It’s not as if you’re making this judgment arbitrarily; as someone holding both jobs (and presumably trained to do so), you are in a valid position to decide which edict matters more.

So eventually, Klosterman decides that reading a stranger’s mail is OK, but only if you’re going to hector her about her personal life decisions, even if you don’t know anything about what might be going on in that person’s life, or what the person has even decided to do, if anything, with the formula:

In the specific scenario you cite, however, your two volunteer jobs are not really at odds. Give this woman the formula that was mailed to her, but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding. Use the opportunity to educate her about how these nutritional methods are different, and let her decide what is best for her and her baby. In this way, you’d be performing both of your duties simultaneously.

This seems to me a clear case of Don’t Interfere with Other People’s Mail–or Personal Life Decisions. Ten unambiguous words.

In another ethical quandary regarding another’s mail—in this case, email—Klosterman again equivocates. Here’s the letter:

I sent my wife an angry e-mail. An hour or two after sending it, I was working at our shared computer and saw my e-mail, unread, in her in-box. Feeling regretful, I deleted it. Was this unethical?

And here’s the evasion (God, I’m running out of synonyms), before finally suggesting that the husband cannot ethically delete the email he sent to his wife, followed by a completely hypothetical caveat:

This is a situation in which our current relationship with a specific technology obfuscates the essence of the problem: who owns information, and when does that ownership start?

Let’s say you dropped a physical letter in the mailbox, walked up the block and suddenly regretted the decision to send whatever was in the envelope. Reaching into a public mailbox to retrieve that letter is unlawful (and complicated). But if the only letter you want to grab is the one you deposited, would the impulse be immoral? What if you regretted the decision not because of what the letter contained but because you realized it was incorrectly addressed? And what if the mailbox wasn’t public? What if it was the private mailbox in front of your suburban home (but you’ve already raised the box’s flag, signaling to the postal employee that the letter is now available to be delivered)?

It’s difficult to definitively declare when a physical letter no longer belongs to the person who wrote it. It could be argued that the moment a letter is placed inside an envelope and the recipient’s name is scrawled on the outside, the contents become the recipient’s property. But this, somehow, feels incomplete; you could hold onto an addressed, stamped envelope for years, and no one could stop you. What makes e-mail different is that this philosophical haze is technologically eliminated by the lack of a middleman: the moment a user hits the “send” button, the question of ownership is moot. But that shouldn’t dictate the ethics.

The reason I would classify what you did as unethical is that you shouldn’t be directly accessing your wife’s e-mail account. The fact that you saw this unread e-mail was possibly unavoidable, as that’s always a risk with a shared computer. But you should not manipulate or examine the contents of her in-box, regardless of where those contents are from (there are theoretical exceptions to this rule, but they’re so rare that they can almost be disregarded from the discussion — if your wife was missing, for example).

I will, however, say this: had you remotely deleted your own unread e-mail after it was sent, I would not classify the act as unethical. If someone wrote an ill-advised e-mail in haste (or inadvertently sends a message to 100 co-workers instead of one) and used an “unsend” feature to destroy it before it could be opened, I would support the act (although it should be noted that the current technology for doing so isn’t very practical — not everyone has it, and my e-mail system only allows for a 30-second annihilation window).

Now, I realize this presents a logical contradiction. As the writer of the e-mail to your wife, you could claim you’re being reprimanded for manually doing something that would somehow be acceptable if it were done remotely, even though the outcome is identical. The difference, however, is this: the first situation involves rooting through someone’s nonphysical mailbox, which we’ve collectively agreed is off limits. The second situation involves pre-emptively extracting something that — in my view — is still partly your property. That distinction is minuscule and certainly debatable. But that’s what makes this a good question.

So…  it’s ethical to read a stranger’s mail if it leads to meddling in her personal life, in which you have nothing at stake, but it is not OK to delete an email you sent to your wife, even though married couples often share computers, often leave their computers open, and seldom sign out of accounts, making such a deletion less of an intrusion than reading the stranger’s mail, but it’s also wrong even if you yourself wrote the offending email—and deleting it will preserve marital harmony.   In Klostermania ethics, deleting an email from your spouse’s account, that you yourself sent, is a worse violation than egregiously  hurting her feelings.  Perhaps the email had been lecturing her about breastfeeding, so it’s OK.   Of course, a husband who is sending his wife nasty emails probably has bigger issues in the marriage, which is apparently a less important point to raise than a “distinction [that] is minuscule and certainly debatable.”

Yet for all the, um… synonym… fudging in those answers, the other Klosterman, in Black Hat, is sure as shit and right as rain: The Eagles “are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California…  I know this because everybody knows this….”  Beginning a book about villains with the Eagles is counterintuitive, but it helps to reveal an interesting idea—that people are capable of vilifying even the blandest, more innocuous stuff—that then becomes smothered by the high-stakes hyperbole.

And: “There is no greater conundrum for the sports-obsessed historian than the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier.” Look, I’m not a sports guy at all, but I find it hard to believe that sports-obsessed historians agree on anything.

When Klosterman gets to comparing real-life subway shooter vigilante Bernard Goetz with Batman, then I’m interested.  But again, Klosterman’s strange need for absolutism and Manichaeism leads to pronouncements like this: “But oddly—or maybe predictably—most of these comparisons [between Goetz and Batman] are primarily occupied with why everyone still loves Batman (as opposed to why everyone stopped loving Goetz). They start from the premise that vigilantism is indisputably wrong. The core question is always some version of ‘Why are actions unacceptable in life somehow acceptable in fiction?’ But this seems like the wrong thing to worry about. That answer seems self-evident.  I more often wonder about the reverse: Why are the qualities we value in the unreal somehow verboten in reality?”  He goes on to suggest that “Batman is a beloved fictional figure who would not be beloved in a nonfictional world… He would be seen as a brutal freak, scarier to the public that the criminals he captured.”

It could be such an interesting comparison. But the insistence that the first question is self-evident and that the second question is somehow better and opposed to the first seems wrong-headed.  Klosterman’s second question in fact seems far more self-evident: because real people get hurt in real life.  And the follow-up ignores that the recent Batman relaunch—the one that grossed a hundred gazillion dollars—is in fact primarily concerned with the very question of what Batman would be like in a less cartoonish, less fictionalized fictional world.  What began as a good set of questions seems undermined by smug certainty and cherry picked examples.

Look. I liked the book. I like the topic. I like that Klosterman actually talks about Mr. Bungle (who I love, unlike CK).  But I can’t get behind that I Wear the Black Hat is written in the same overheated rhetoric of the above quotations.  Here’s the repetition breakdown:

Always is repeated 68 times

Never: 78 times

Inevitable/inevitably: 22 times

Everyone: 38 times

No one: 32 times

Certainly: 23 times

True: 36 times

All: a whopping 92 times

The book is only 199 pages.

Perhaps, in the end, the two Klostermen can come together.  Perhaps the Ethicist can achieve some of Black Hat Klosterman’s insight and moral clarity—less wishy-washy, but more insightful. And BHK can approach the world in a way that’s more relativist (in a good way), to try to examine his subjects in a way that acknowledges that not all things, everyone, or no one certainly always believes or behaves in the ways he proscribes.

We would have a more ethical Ethicist, and more readable cultural criticism that acknowledges the ambiguity of his subject matter.  After all, metaphorically speaking, most characters and people wear gray hats.

Time: Over! 90 minutes

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