Reaping What We Sow

The Wall Street Journal’s description of the actions of Governor Christie’s aides with regard to the traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey (Emails Raise New Questions for Christie in Bridge Spat, January 9) paints a frightening picture of abuse of power by senior officials in the New Jersey state government. Without presupposing the guilt or innocence of any of the officials, the emails and texts reflect individuals without appropriate concepts of right and wrong conduct. Replying to one text expressing concern for the school buses affected by the snarled traffic, Governor Christie’s childhood friend David Wildstein replies “They are the children of Buono voters,” as if the political opinions of their parents justifies intentional mistreatment of the children. How can we explain a group of otherwise intelligent high-achievers justifying their bad deeds in such a callous manner?

The answer is likely the way we allow our public and private discourse to characterize those who think differently than ourselves as either evil or less than human. Liberals and conservatives alike fall prey to these misrepresentations. A number of studies and books document how mistreatment and even torture of any group of people requires preconditioning those who inflict the mistreatment to view their victims through the lens of propaganda or by some process of reclassification of the victims as sub-human objects rather than people. In The Body in Pain, for instance, Elaine Scarry writes that “Concentration camp guards… repeatedly said to their prisoners, ‘I’d shoot you but you’re not worth the three pfennig of the bullet,’ a statement that had so little effect on the prisoners that its constant repetition was unintelligible… until he realized… it had been made part of the SS training because of its impact on the guards themselves.” (Scarry, p. 58.)

Propaganda and wrongful caricatures of minorities have been transmitted effectively enough to support persecution campaigns throughout history. However, the information stream—traditional media plus the myriad internet, social networking, and other information venues in which Americans partake—has been revolutionized over the past 50 years through a combination of decreased regulation and enormous advances in technology. The way we market and distribute information today magnifies the power of the information stream to project conspiracy myths and misrepresentations of those with whom we disagree. Both liberal and conservative venues and pundits regularly portray “the evil other” as the proximate cause of whatever negative phenomena they are trying to explain. Passive consumers of information are susceptible to absorbing these conspiracy myths even though the myths are more often a function of information marketing than they are an accurate description of the world in which we live. To the extent we absorb the myths un-critically, we may come to view the people or groups allegedly perpetrating the conspiracy as evil or dangerous. Otherwise law-abiding people are then able to justify unlawful behaviors as a necessary defense against a greater evil.

On the one hand, therefore, it is tempting to say that Governor Christie’s aides are simply a product of the powerful currents that characterize American information and distribution systems. However, leaders are responsible for the culture and climate of the organizations they lead, not just for the activities they have approved. Having led or been part of organizations large and small for over 30 years, I find it highly implausible that Governor Christie could not be aware that the culture of his closest advisors was too extreme. After all, the alleged perpetrators of the traffic jam are close aides and long-term acquaintances of the governor, not some remote cohort of New Jersey state officials. A chief executive who tolerates a climate of intolerance and partisanship is responsible for the activities that spring from that climate. Just as we must hold President Obama responsible for the mismanagement of the healthcare.gov rollout, we must also hold Governor Christie responsible for the ethical lapses of his closest advisors. In my view, a leader who has presided over such a group is not qualified for higher office.

For most of us, the broader social lessons of the Fort Lee bridge scandal should be clear. We must be active consumers of both information and government if we wish to protect ourselves from the myths used to market and distribute information. Active consumers of information challenge the conspiracy theories they encounter and seek balanced sources of information. We should not reward pundits or public officials who demonize people with different political orientations. Those who buy in to the conspiracy narratives perpetrated by the media may find themselves justifying personal misconduct in the service of some illusory “greater good.” If we truly seek better governance in the information age, we should strive to raise the level of education of our citizens, equipping Americans of all ages to be active consumers of information and to apply critical reasoning to the information they consume.