Recently, the news reported some comments from a well-known, and by all accounts, generous and philanthropic individual in the state, of an unfortunate and ad hominem nature about a prominent politician. Such comments are, of course, always regrettable.
What could explain them? We have to admit that we don’t know. It could be a regrettable lapse such as all of us make—and hope will not be widely reported or remembered. It might be that the remark was misreported and, based on context or some other factor, is not as uncivil as it appeared in the report. Perhaps the speaker was experiencing some lapse, such as might be caused by a medical condition. Perhaps it accurately reflects an unkind feeling, though one hopes not. At bottom, it’s difficult to understand, much less explain.
It should be said that the story reports that there was no response from the public official impugned, which speaks well of him.
The episode raises other questions as well. For instance, what is the ethical responsibility of a person who is told by one person an unflattering characterization of another? This is a familiar scenario — the teenager, for instance, who stirs contention: “Do you know what she said about you?” What about others who relay the comment?
Also, what is the responsibility of those who seek such comments? Are they merely reporting news? Is it part of the public’s “right to know” that an admirable public person thinks badly of another? Is there yet another person in the background spurring on the expression or reporting of the comments for their own political or other purposes? What is their responsibility?
Of course, anyone active in public life runs the risk of being poorly thought of by others. Ideally, disagreements about policy choices will be expressed as such rather than as ad hominem statements. Those who are admired ought to be particularly careful not to add to the coarseness of political debate.
That does not, however, absolve the listeners, relayers and instigators of their responsibility as well.