December 2008 Ethics Dunces


Earlier this year, a kindergarten teacher in Port St. Lucie, Florida named Wendy Portillo hauled misbehaving 5 year-old Alex Barton in front of his class and asked other students to tell him how his disruptive behavior affected them. Then she asked the children to vote whether he should remain in the class or not (there is valid speculation that Portillo’s tactic was inspired by the reality show “Survivor.”). Alex was indeed “voted out;” later it was revealed that he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that often is manifested by awkward social behavior. The incident stirred up outrage on the community, web and elsewhere for about 24 hours, then was replaced by the next piece of cable news fodder. The Scoreboard did not comment on the incident, because it is an obvious example of outrageous, unprofessional, incompetent, cruel and unethical behavior by a teacher. As Hannah Montana would say, “Duh!”
Now…finally…comes news that the glacial administrative process at the St. Lucie County School Board has gotten around to suspending Portillo without pay. (This also raises the question of what a teacher has to do to a five-year old to get fired these days: Flog him? Set him on fire? Make him watch “The O’Reilly Factor”? But we digress…)

But into the fray, on the website of a Port St. Lucie TV station, leaps commentator “J.J.” who cautions us not to judge…

“Being a teacher… is a very demanding job now, regardless of special challenges. Apparently there were 17 kids in the class, and I suspect [Alex] was singled out partly because he was the most difficult of the bunch, because surely the other 16 were not perfect. I'm not defending the teacher whom not enough is known about to make a fair assessment, but I think most will agree that a 21 year old teacher [ doing this sort of thing shouldn’t be shocking] due to the level of ignorance that may be involved.
What if she had no idea this kid was being tested for Aspergers syndrome in addition to her poor judgement? Voting him out of class was probably no surprise at all to the youngster and may have actually been perceived as less traumatic. Kids are often much smarter and more manipulative than we tend to give them credit for.”

Readers of the Scoreboard know its oft-stated position that all of us have an obligation to judge the conduct of our fellow human beings as right or wrong, and to identify wrongful conduct as such as clearly and forcefully as possible. Some individuals like “JJ” cannot or will not comprehend this, and can be fairly identified as slackers in the shared cultural job of deciding what kind of world we want to live in. Their mantra is that it is “unfair” to judge anyone else’s behavior because we can’t know what motivated them. This is, of course, a rationalization, and one that often supports a selfish objective: such people want to avoid anyone calling them on their own bad conduct.

“JJ” is especially instructive, because he, she or it is willing to apply this philosophy of social anarchy to conduct that could never be justifiable, ever, by anyone. JJ says the teacher is young and inexperienced. Well, JJ, it is wrong, always wrong, to take on a professional obligation that one is not qualified to perform, especially when the welfare of others---and especially when the others are children.

JJ shows himself to be incapable of ethical analysis, so far out in left field that he can’t follow the game. The problem with the teacher’s actions has absolutely nothing to do with whether the other children were “perfect,” for example. This isn’t an offense of one student being unfairly singled out for punishment. This is a teacher abusing a child. JJ seems to think that if all the students had been subjected to a humiliating vote, that would be fine, or at least better. It would, of course, be worse—humiliating 17 children is worse than just humiliating one. Similarly, it doesn’t matter whether the teacher knew that the child had a medical problem. JJ actually implies that humiliating the child would be somehow less offensive if the child were healthy---at least healthy until having psychic wounds inflicted on him by his incompetent teacher.

JJ’s next argument, if you can call it that, is that the teacher was dealing with the difficulty of applying discipline in the school system, and “you have to do something.” Well, yeah, I guess she could have shot the kid in the kneecap, too. True, you have to do something. But inflicting psychic and emotional trauma is not one of the ethical options.

It is called “wrong.”

“JJ” is under the common misconception, much beloved in some sectors of the liberal establishment, that fairness always requires giving equal respect to “both sides”…as in “Who knows what women had done to Jack the Ripper to make him hate them so much that he slit their throats?” and “Who knows how much that 20-year-old siren intern tempted the President of the United States?” As in these situations and too many other to count, there is no other side, not when a supposed adult entrusted with the welfare of children decides to bully a 5 year old child. It is unequivocally wrong. Anyone who cannot look at such conduct, conclude that it is unethical, and condemn it is a drag on society’s efforts to become better, kinder, fairer, and more civilized.

Well, you may say, JJ is obviously an idiot: why pick on JJ? But there are a lot of JJ’s among us…a frightening number. You probably know some. There are JJ’s who teach in major universities, who hold elected office, who write books and op-ed opinions, who appear on television. There were probably JJ’s on the Port St. Lucie School Board, and the local teacher’s union is probably full of them. They are people who are unwilling to draw ethical lines, or who are so ethically muddled that they can’t draw them. And the unethical people among on us count on these ethics abstainers to let them continue to cause harm.

Some conduct is just unequivocally wrong. There are ethical absolutes, and a teacher abusing a child is one of them. Not being able to conclude that immediately doesn’t mean you are being careful, measured, rational or fair.
It means you are an Ethics Dunce.




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