Moral Rip Tides: A Reflection on Professional Responsibility in a Time of Crisis

healeyDr. Kevin Healey
Assistant Professor of Media Studies
University of New Hampshire
[email protected]

Part 1: The Lazy Sunbathers

On a hot day this past summer, my wife and I took our nine-year-old daughter to Hampton Beach for a lazy afternoon of sunbathing, freshly-squeezed lemonade, and skee ball. We spread out our blanket and umbrella near the lifeguard’s perch just as she raised the yellow flag to warn swimmers to use caution.

In addition to its bone-chillingly cold waters, the New Hampshire seacoast is notable for the presence of dangerous rip tides. Signs at the edge of the beach depict roaring currents and instruct unlucky swimmers to keep their cool: “If caught in a rip current,” the sign reads, “Do not panic.”

Easier said than done, I thought to myself. Good thing there’s a lifeguard on duty.

I enjoyed watching my daughter throw herself into the water and splash with abandon, joining her for a few moments before returning to shore to warm myself in the sun. I’d brought a smartphone full of beach-themed tunes, and plugged into a tune called The Lazy Sunbathers. The singer’s voice crooned:

A world war
Was announced
Days ago
But they didn’t know
The lazy sunbathers…

I looked around at the other beach-goers. They seemed unaware, perhaps willfully so, of the vicissitudes of the ongoing U.S. Presidential election, the Syrian refugee crisis, the world beyond the shore. Lazy sunbathers, indeed—and I was one.

Shortly after the waves began to grow in size and force, the lifeguard lowered the yellow flag. The red flag went up, indicating dangerous waters. I motioned my daughter to join us on the blanket. I took the opportunity to reflect a bit. I have the luxury of lazing on the shore. I can dive into the crashing waves if, and when, I please. The lifeguard has no such luxury. She must be vigilant. Her job seems easy enough—but that’s because the most important part of it is highly concentrated in those unfortunate moments of crisis when someone’s life may be at stake. She’d better be paying attention. And perhaps more importantly, she better know how to handle those rip tides.

And she’d better not panic.

Part 2: Lifeguards on Duty

One song breezed into the next, and soon I heard the opening lines from a decades-old tune titled Lifeguard on Duty:

The work you chose has a practical vein
But I read much more into your name…
Lifeguard, lifeguard
Save me from life…

In public life, we rely on lifeguards of many sorts: doctors, teachers, journalists. As we go about our business, they occasionally gesture wildly, call out, or blow a whistle—all in an effort to keep us in safe waters by eating right, building our basic skills, staying informed.

Once in a while, though, a crisis unfolds. Someone calls, “Is there a doctor in the house?” In such moments, professionals must step down from their perch on the shore—entering the moral rip tides of public life. Yet they must remain professional. In fact, they have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of their profession even in moments when conventional lines are blurred: between offering a diagnosis and issuing a judgment of character; between reporting the facts and engaging in activism.

While perhaps they cannot save us outright, such professionals can help as we face “the ails and the ills” of public life, to borrow a phrase from the same song. But they cannot fall prey to the emotions we face—whether fear, anger, or disgust.

Above all, they must not panic.

After his house was bombed in January of 1956, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, issued a warning not unlike that sign posted near Hampton Beach. Moral rip tides threatened to drag him down in a current of anger and vengeance. But the very next day, he insisted:

We believe in law and order. Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky at all. Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.

A few years later, in an essay titled “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” King made a crucial distinction between the “negative peace” of complacency with the status quo and the “positive peace” of active but non-violent resistance to injustice.

When we sit idly by on the shore, even as the force of tides increases and poses a real threat, we may experience a contentedness in the knowledge of our own safety. But the safety of the shore is an indulgence, and the peace we feel is a negative one, if we merely watch while others are pulled under by the sheer force of nature. If we never face the threat first-hand by entering dangerous waters, we never develop the capacity to remain calm in their throes.

The capacity to maintain an active, positive peace in the face of risk is called equanimity. It takes grit. It’s what we expect from lifeguards. It is the reason we trust them with our lives.

Part 3: Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning

Of course, their ability to remain calm is worth nothing if they fall asleep on the job. In a more ominous tune aptly titled Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning, that crooning voice tells the story of a young girl who “swam too far against the tide” and suffers the tragic fate of such inattentiveness:

A shrill cry through darkening air
Doesn’t she know, he’s had such a busy day?
The sky became mad with stars
As an outstretched arm slowly disappears…

Like those literal lifeguards at the shore, professionals whose work serves the public good—i.e., the above-mentioned doctors, teachers, and journalists—don’t have the luxury of resting ashore in times of crisis. As the U.S. Presidential campaign has lurched forward in a disturbing series of fits and starts, professionals from each of these groups have argued that this, indeed, is such a time of crisis. What they have found is that negotiating the moral rip tides of public life is ethically tricky, even though many professional organizations have protocols stipulating if, and when, they can leverage their expertise through active engagement in public affairs.

In August, the American Psychiatric Association issued a statement cautioning its practitioners against armchair diagnoses of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. To do so, the APA argues, is unethical and irresponsible. It simply can’t be done accurately without meeting the person in question. Furthermore, it can pathologize otherwise common personality traits—for example, prejudicial attitudes toward minorities. Commercial news media fan these flames by focusing on gossip and using Freudian jargon like “narcissism” as news hooks. Cable news thrives on the endless patter of talking heads. Psychologists who exploit these dynamics self-servingly, to fluff their feathers in public, threaten the integrity of the entire profession.

But some argue that Trump’s campaign has brought to shore dangerous rip tides that threaten to sweep us away in a torrent of anger and fear—along with the very democratic values we hold dear. For his part, Dan McAdams argues you can offer a “psychological commentary” without doing an actual diagnosis. Such commentaries can be reasoned and rational. Nassir Ghaemi likewise insists that it is possible to offer assessments of candidates legitimately, as long as such assessments remain objective and scientific. In other words, psychologists have something to offer by entering the political currents that surround us. To be sure, it’s not what they spend most of their time doing. But that doesn’t mean they’re not qualified. They can help, as long as they don’t panic.

Such is the rationale offered by Historians Against Trump (HAT), a group of over 600 academics who have argued that “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.” In tones similar to the APA’s recent pronouncement, the noted academic Stanley Fish issued a stinging condemnation  of the group, arguing that academics undermine the integrity of their profession by leveraging academic credentials in support of partisan political views. “Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom,” insisted Prof. Fish.

Not surprisingly, HAT members responded in kind with a defense of their activism. Writing in the Washington Post, Ilya Somin argued that “the idea that expertise is not a qualification for delivering wisdom would be dismissed as laughable in almost any context other than politics.” Experts from plumbers to physicians can sometimes be wrong. But isn’t it worth our while to listen to them? Fish is essentially telling academics—lifeguards of the public intellect—to stay safely on shore where they supposedly belong.

Of more direct interest to media scholars is the case of news reporter and commentator Cokie Roberts. After leaving her full-time position at National Public Radio (NPR) in 1992, Roberts has continued to offer analysis and commentary for ABC and elsewhere. In early 2016, she co-authored an op-ed with her husband Steven Roberts (also a journalist), in which the couple called upon the “rational wing” of the GOP to stop Trump in his move toward the party’s nomination, arguing that the candidate “lacks the character and temperament to be president.”

It was not the first time that a well-known journalist had entered the fray regarding Trump’s policies. In late 2015, for example, NBC news analyst Tom Brokaw called the candidate’s ban on Muslims a “dangerous” proposal that “overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself.”

Roberts arguably went further. After penning the op-ed with her husband, she confronted Trump directly during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe early in March 2016. Roberts informed Trump—to his apparent surprise—about several incidents across the nation where white school children had invoked Trump’s rhetoric to bully minorities. During a basketball game in which a white team faced off against a team of Hispanic players, young white fans in the crowd allegedly held up a sign reading, “We’re going to build a wall to keep you out.” Roberts told Trump that his rhetoric has “an effect on the whole discourse” of the nation, and asked if he was proud to have inspired such prejudice. In one of the most pointed moments of either campaign, Roberts asked, “What about the children, Mr. Trump?”

The higher-ups at NPR felt compelled to address Roberts’s actions, since they appear to violate its policy against journalists taking a public stance on political issues. As NPR reporter David Folkenflik explains, “the news media continues to wrestle with how to respond to Trump,” since his speeches feature “rhetoric that has seemed to incite violence and racial tensions.” NPR’s editorial director has noted as much in a memo which clarified that Roberts’s views are her own. In a conversation on Morning Edition, NPR’s David Greene pressed Roberts on the proper role of a reporter:

Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?

Roberts argued that civility itself is at stake, as well as the very ability of government to function properly. Citing “the dark times in our history where we have gone backwards,” Roberts defended her intervention in the campaign. “Not to point out that this is a moment in history where we could be [going] backward instead of forward might be a disservice,” Roberts added.

Roberts, like Brokaw, keenly sensed a swift tide threatening to topple the body politic and pull it under. Compelled by a sense of duty, they stepped down from their perch and entered the waters—level-headed, but determined nevertheless.

Today, traditional gatekeepers like Brokaw and Roberts face an additional complication in their efforts to exercise prudent judgment. The proliferation of digital platforms has populated the shores of public life with arm-chair—or shall we say, beach-blanket—journalists. These self-styled lifeguards of public discourse are poised to cause more harm than good if, however well-intentioned, they enter the tide in a state of moral panic.

Consider the case of WikiLeaks and its self-appointed leader, Julian Assange. The group’s efforts recently resulted in the release of a treasure-trove of documents from the Democratic National Committee—including the passport and social security numbers of private citizens. The Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich argues that WikiLeaks is no longer a trusted organization advocating on behalf of government transparency. “It’s not striving for objectivity. It’s more careless,” Wonderlich said, adding that WikiLeaks is now motivated by an ideologically-fueled sense of vengeance and retribution.

Speaking anonymously to Time magazine, one activist explained that the group once acted “like publishers and journalists” but lamented that “they turned out not to have any principles.” Even Edward Snowden described WikiLeaks’ “hostility to even modest” redaction of documents “a mistake.”

Recall for a moment King’s warning to his followers. “Don’t do anything panicky at all,” he said. “Don’t get your weapons.”

WikiLeaks, in a manner of speaking, got its weapons. In fact, security experts warn that in its quest for radical transparency, WikiLeaks has allowed itself to become “weaponized.” As such it is a threat to, rather than a guardian of, public discourse. A rogue lifeguard, panicked and flailing in the tide, is at least as bad as a professional who remains asleep on the shore.

Part 4: Back to the Bench

Fittingly, the final song I hear describes a beach scene in a “coastal town that they forgot to close down.” As the evening fell, my family and I recreated the song’s scene, “trudging back over pebbles and sand” to the boardwalk of Hampton Beach. At its edge, as we sit on a bench and shake the sand from our shoes, I noticed the warning sign again. We stop to read its full text:

If caught in a rip current – Do not panic. Swim even with the shore until current weakens and begin to make your way to shore.

Recently, in a speech to the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, Arthur Zajonc argued that we all need to “find the MLK in each of us.” We need to “find our way again and again to that place” where we can meet challenges “without anger, but with love.” This reminder is especially salient for media scholars who seek to preserve the virtues of prudence and judgment in the emerging digital economy.

To be sure, the moral rip tides of 2016 have yet to weaken. They will surely be followed by more treacherous ones. I trust that scholars of media ethics—seasoned authors and students alike—will meet these challenges with level heads and loving hearts. The body politic is strong, but prone to episodes of panic. Let’s craft a sustainable media ecology, guided by prudent and professional guardians, wherein all those who swim may make it safely back to shore.