The Cost of the Moral High Ground

Recent headlines:

All of these articles deal with a fundamental business issue: As companies depend more and more on audiences that are taken from the entire cultural gamut our world has to offer, how do they deal with the conflicting political and social issues that invariably result?

Unfortunately I don’t have much of a point to make here. These issues are each complex in their own way, and there is no obvious “right” answer. Although, to be candid, the Idealist in me is screaming, “Just act your conscience!”. But the Realist also understands that slow change from within is sometimes the only change that can be had.

I do find it interesting that these companies are able to put a real $$$-value on the cost of taking the moral high ground – and, for better or worse, make their decisions accordingly. It gives one pause, and leads to speculation about whether or not this is a good thing. And whether or not there might be some lessons here that apply to individual ethics.

On Censorship & Craigslist

Congress and the FCC are beating the “indecency in television is corrupting our culture” drums again. And to be honest, I’m not horribly interested in the debate although perhaps I should be. I’m sure there is a fundamental right-to-something at risk. But the “blaming the egg for the chicken” aspect to all of it makes it rather hard to care. If nothing else our society’s priorities for what is and isn’t indecent are more than a little out of whack: Incite murder? Just apologize. But heaven forbid you should flash a boob! Now that, that’ll cost you. *sigh*

Meanwhile, back in the cyber world, we have the “Best of Craigslist“…

Warning: “Best Of” is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended – there’s no beating around that bush. It features the most “interesting” postings from an open, frequently anonymous, online community as voted for by it’s readers (i.e. the Internet at large). Thus, it is a reflection of the pure, unadulterate tastes of the unwashed masses. It can be (and often is) vulgar, disgusting, violent, or simply downright disturbing. It is reality television for the literate.

So why blog about it? Why feature it in this otherwise sage and perspicacious little web site?

It turns out there are some real gems in there. There is a brutal honesty at work that gives one pause; take these two entries from the latest batch of Best Of posts: “Looking for a Surrogate Husband” (mildly vulgar) and “You Wonder Why Men Cheat?” (very vulgar). They are offensive, and funny, and a little sad. But once read, they instill an appreciation for how fortunate we are to have our normal lives and relationships. There is something to be said for indecency sometimes.

On a lighter and not-so-vulgar note, check out “An Open Letter To The Poop-Picking Up Girl“. Easily my all-time favorite piece.


Chatting with the Army

“No Child Left Behind” Act, Section 9528, pg 559:

Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings.

Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students.

About a year ago I stumbled across an online ad for the US Army that shocked me. I’d been doing my usual surf of online game sites when I came across one of their ads at It was similar to ones we’ve all seen, where beautiful young men and women in uniform run around in tanks, firing guns, all without a speck of blood being shed. But it wasn’t the content that I found shocking, it was it’s placement. These gaming sites cater to a market where 1/3rd of the audience are minors. Minors that are, in all likelihood, without adult supervision. And here the Army was actively encouraging them to “Chat with a Recruiter Online”.

I was intrigued enough that I did something I still question the wisdom of, I joined the Army chat room to see what was going on. My motivations in doing this are a little fuzzy, but I believe it was mostly an exercise in curiosity. It was a situation where the potential for unethical behavior was pretty high (naive minors + military machine seeking recruits = ???). I wanted to see where these recruiters drew their lines.

Since I felt the recruiters would behave differently if they knew I was a 38-year old adult rather than a real recruit candidate, I donned the guise of a college student curious about what the risks were in joining the Army. I did some research beforehand to get information that was readily available on the Net, and then went in to see just how rosy a picture they would paint.

I won’t bore you with the details (actually, I will – here’s the complete transcript, formatted for easy reading) but the upshot is that these recruiters, not surprisingly, only provide information in ways that promote their agenda of signing up recruits. Does this come as a surprise? No, of course not, that’s what they are paid to do after all.

Yet… there is an unsavory quality there, something that isn’t quite right. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, and reread the chat transcript above numerous times, trying to pinpoint just why it is I’m so bothered by that exchange. Most of the conversation seems pretty benign and, if anything, I should be criticized for posing as something I’m not and for upsetting the other people in the chat room. Some of them had already enlisted and were simply keeping eachother company while waiting to go to boot camp. Discussing the risks involved in front of them was a form of cruelty I had not intended, and certainly regret.

So what’s wrong with the recruiter’s behavior? The answer lies in the misconception that they are simply salespeople, selling the Army “product”. These are not used cars they’re selling, where it’s just part of the game to oversell things a bit; they are asking recruits to risk life, limb, and mental well-being. The recruit is making what may well be the most significant decision of their life. And in that regard the recruiters’ role should be first and foremost that of a mentor, not salesperson. Their job is to help recruits make an informed decision to the best of their ability. Anything less is dishonest and disrespectful.

But don’t construe that as an argument for a policy of full, unilateral, disclosure on the part of recruiters. I will readily admit there is a certain reality we need to contend with – the U.S. needs a fully-manned military, and such a policy would put a significant dent in the already suffering recruiting efforts of our armed services. There are also cases where recruits simply may not want to know about such risks. Doing one’s patriotic duty does, at times, require a blissful ignorance. So when does it become a recruiter’s responsibility to provide information about these risks?

I think the only answer that balances the interests of the Army with the interests of the recruit is to say that the recruit must first ask the questions. I.e. they need do demonstrate that they want to be informed. Once they’ve done that, however, it is the recruiters responsibility to provide information, and do so in good faith.

… and this is where I hold the recruiters in the Army chat room at fault. By maintaining a willful ignorance, and by distorting the severity of the risks, they deny candidates the ability to become well informed. For example, they are asked on a daily basis what %’age of recruits are deployed to Iraq, yet they claim not to have this information. But in subsequent visits to the chat room, and after much pressure on my part, they eventually admitted to having that data (about 50% of recruits are deployed to Iraq). They also claim the risks involved in joining the Army are similar to that of “driving down the street” – something I have no hard evidence to refute, but which sounds rather ludicrous.

That chat room conversation took place over a year ago. Since then, the Army has pulled their advertisements from They also fell short of their 2005 recruitment goals by 8% – the largest in nearly two decades. And the “No Child Left Behind” clause that leads this entry is starting to create a public uproar.

[Image based on art from James Montgomery Flag and The Queensland Times]

Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

I hate it when this happens. I’ve been working on a blog entry about the whole gay rights/same-sex marriage issue for a while now. Then I discover that someone on CraigsList pretty much sums everything up in a nice tidy response to some gay-basher’s post. It provides a nice shot-from-hip response that resonates well.

But there are some interesting and unexpected repercussions to the various same-sex marriage amendments some states have added to their constitutions. ‘Turns out that Ohio has domestic abuse laws that define marriage in some pretty liberal ways to allow for prosecution of abusive partners. But with the restrictions imposed by their recent same-sex marriage amendment some loopholes may have opened up.NPR audio piece here. It’d be funny if a bunch of wife-beaters weren’t being put back on the streets.

Another item I found particularly interesting comes in The Source magazine here in Oregon. They recently used the Freedom of Information act to get copies of (and subsequently publish) a day’s worth of emails sent to Oregon’s Sen. Ben Westlund criticizing his support of SB1000, a bill allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions.

I mostly find this interesting because it means your privacy may be forfeit whenever you communicate with a government official. But it’s also interesting because The Source says most of the emails echo the sentiments of (or simply stem from?) a flier put out by the Oregon Family Council, the group that spearheaded support for Oregon’s own marriage amendment, measure 36. Of course, when trying to get measure 36 passed, the Family Council’s argument was “Gays have civil unions, why do they need marriage?”. But now that the measure has passed they are trying to prevent civil unions as well. Go figure.

I’d be more enraged by this sort of hypocracy except it doesn’t come as a surprise. This is an emotional issue so expecting people to behave rationally (you know, like live by the golden rule) is just naive. Rhetoric about moral values, religious mandates, or rational thought has little value. Rather, the only way a person will change their mind is if they come to understand why other people feel the way they do… and that takes a level of communication and empathy that is nearly impossible to acheive between people with such different viewpoints.

Maybe we just need to lock Pat Robertson and RuPaul in a room for a while and see what happens.