Before anyone accuses me of drawing moral equivalencies between rampant pedophilia and the ordinary ethical evasions of associational and institutional life, let me repeat and explicitly clarify: I am not comparing the harm and horrors of covering up child abuse to the harm of, say, covering up a petty embezzlement to avoid embarrassment. I am comparing the institutional dynamics that allow people to rationalize tolerating and concealing mistakes and misconduct -- from actual or metaphoric misdemeanors to serious felonies. As I observed in Worst Instincts, my book about malfeasance at the ACLU, when a belief in institutional virtue calcifies into an article of faith -- immutable and not contingent on behavior -- then the harm of grievous as well as petty misconduct is readily minimized (or denied), the cost of acknowledging it is maximized, and members can tell themselves that concealing it is not self-serving cowardice but unselfish service to the institution, and, by extension, the greater good. Virtue is presumed to lie in protecting the institution, instead of protecting its individual casualties. Loyalty to the institution is elevated over loyalty to the institution's ideals.
"What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA." Religious institutions and other not for profits engaged in charity or advocacy work are even more susceptible than businesses (with fewer moral ideals or illusions) to the temptations of self-righteously equating their welfare with the welfare of the public. The Catholic Church's sinful, decades long complicity in child abuse is a tragic example of institutional arrogance; but we are bombarded regularly with trivial or farcical ones. They provide insights into pervasive institutional failures and cynical charades of accountability, to which we risk becoming resigned.
Consider Michael Steele's tenure at the RNC (especially if you're drawn to farce) or a recent fracas at the ACLU (with which I am much more familiar). As The New York Times reported last week, the ACLU of Mississippi recently rejected a $20,000 gift from the American Humanist Association (AHA) intended to help fund an alternative prom for lesbian student Constance McMillen, because, as local ACLU development director Jennifer Carr regretfully explained in an email, ACLU staff feared associating the prom with the AHA: "(W)e are afraid that announcing your organization as the Prom's sponsor may push back our mission and create more obstacles for Constance, or even all LGBT rights in Mississippi. Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word 'atheist.'"
It's only fair to acknowledge that this confession does not reflect institutional arrogance; it reflects institutional cowardice and hypocrisy. If an African American or Jewish group offered to help fund the prom, the ACLU would probably not have refused their gifts, citing concerns about racism or anti-Semitism. But arrogance and dishonesty shaped the ACLU's reaction to the embarrassing report in the Times.
When first contacted by reporter Stephanie Strom, the ACLU apparently started spinning: the legal director of the Mississippi ACLU, Kristy Bennett, offered an alternative excuse for rejecting the AHA gift, the Times reported: It was encumbered by onerous conditions, she claimed. No, it wasn't, according to AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt: the Humanist Association merely requested that the AHA "get the same recognition as other donors making similar gifts." Then, the day after the Times story appeared, the ACLU offered another explanation, posting a self-serving apology that scape-goated Mississippi development director Jennifer Carr, clearly implying, most implausibly, that she acted unilaterally in rejecting the AHA gift. (Legal director Bennett's defense of the ACLU's actions to The New York Times was ignored, as if it had never been offered.)
In fact, Carr had initially accepted the gift enthusiastically on behalf of the Mississippi ACLU, on March 24th, writing, "it would be our honor to make the American Humanist Association one of two primary sponsors of the 2nd Chance Prom ... What recognition would you like? ... We want to make sure that we properly show our enormous gratitude to your organization ... we could not do this without you!" She added that "our entire staff was THRILLED" that the AHA offered to help coordinate as well as fund the prom: "We have been beating ourselves up trying to figure out if it would even be possible for our small staff to pull off something this upscale." Citing cash flow problems, she anxiously asked, "when can we expect your donation?"
It was not until the AHA followed up, five days later, asking "where to send our 20K contribution" that Carr reported the ACLU's second thoughts about accepting it: "Our staff has been talking a lot about your donation offer and have found ourselves in a bit of a conflict," considering the controversy that Humanist sponsorship might entail. They would be delighted to take the money but understood if the AHA did not want to donate it anonymously, Carr advised. "Please know that as an organization, the ACLU of MS has no objection to your organization and would normally be thrilled if you wanted to team up with us to sponsor an event. Just in this case, we are thinking of what is best for Constance." Were they really? AHA executive director Speckhardt reports that Constance McMillen called him soon after The New York Times story appeared and assured him that she wanted to accept the AHA gift "because discrimination is wrong."
So, after some ado, the American Humanist Association offer has finally been accepted, but not by the ACLU, at least not officially. After having accepted and then rejected the gift, ACLU staff reported that they actually had no authority to do either. An allegedly independent organization, the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (MSSC) is in charge of organizing the prom, the ACLU explained belatedly; (never mind the Mississippi development director's delight at the Humanist's offer to help the ACLU organize an "upscale," alternative prom.) Why are prospective donors to the Second Chance prom directed to the ACLU of Mississippi Foundation? It is simply acting as a fiscal agent for the MSSC, the ACLU claims. But the Safe School's Coalition's independence of the ACLU is questionable, at least. ACLU staffer Sarah Young has described the ACLU as a "founding partner" of the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition. Young, identified on the ACLU website as an "LGBT and HIV/AID's Outreach Coordinator," is also named on the Coalition's website as the contact person for organizations interested in MSSC membership. In any case, the Times reported that MSSC spokesman Matthew Sheffield, "said that after getting answers to a few questions, their board would decide whether to accept the gift," and it finally has done so.
Why is this silly little tale worth telling? Viewed individually, the ordinary ethical lapses of organizational life don't seem to matter much (except to employees directly affected by them or the occasional whistleblower.) But collectively, petty institutional dishonesties flourish at the other end of a continuum from serious institutional pathologies; the arrogance and habits of rationalization people develop in covering up their missteps are the habits that allow them to justify and perpetuate serious transgressions. Lying metastasizes, creating cultures in which dishonesty is reflexive and practically required, for the supposed good of the organization -- even when the truth is merely embarrassing, and the organization would survive acknowledging it. Small lies are easily and often ignored, but they may reveal more about the character of individuals and institutions than large ones. Small lies suggest that lying is not a strategy, or a way out of a moral dilemma, but a habit.
In cultures like this, it's not surprising when subordinates are sacrificed to preserve the reputations of their leaders; the shameless scapegoating of subordinates is one sign of an institution in ethical decline. Mississippi ACLU executive director, Nsombi Lambright, publicly blamed a single member of her staff "for the inappropriate e-mail" she sent rejecting the American Humanist Association gift. What was inappropriate about Carr's email? It was "inappropriate," I suspect, because it was not dishonest. An "appropriate" email would have devised a pretext for rejecting the AHA gift that would not have embarrassed the organization. (A phone call would have been even more appropriate.) ACLU executive director Anthony Romero did call AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt to apologize for rejecting the Humanist gift (after the rejection was publicized), and, Speckhardt reports, Romero used the occasion to disparage staff in the Mississippi office. The buck stops there.