Everyday Ethics

I don’t feel it’s my place to get into the rights and wrongs of Skip Gates’ arrest. I honestly think it’s a case of he-said, he-said, and while I tend to think there are very few times arresting a guy for being angry at, or talking back to, someone accusing him of trespassing in his own home is warranted, I just wasn’t there and I don’t know all the details.

However. I did wonder if President Obama acted with the same caution the other night when, during his prime-time healthcare press conference, he stepped on his own headline (as Chris Matthews put it) and waded into the debate. I’ve just been reading a bit of Buddhist literature, all about “Right Speech,” (also called speaking skillfully). The two questions one is always supposed to ask before one opens one’s mouth are, “Is what I’m about to say true?” and “Is what I’m about to say useful?” 
I don’t think the president could answer either one of those definitively in the affirmative. As for true, he might have some opinions on the arrest, but he had no official knowledge. It’s important that we speak from our own experience and opinions, but he wasn’t there any more than I was, and he rushed to judgement. That doesn’t seem wise or thoughtful. That seems inflammatory and reactionary. It seems to come from a narrow (if heartfelt) perspective. I appreciated his speaking forthrightly about the experience of blacks and hispanics who without question still experience disproportionate police harassment. But without all the facts of this specific case being established first, how do we know this was such a situation?

As for useful, well, I watched the press conference and as soon as he said the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” I thought… “Oh boy, you’ve made some enemies for life there. There’s one union that won’t be backing your reelection campaign.” But more than that I thought it didn’t do his healthcare agenda any good, which in a sense was potentially harming millions of Americans who need reform. (Well, that’s debatable I guess — there are plenty of folks who don’t want his plan to go into effect.) But, frankly, more disturbingly, he’s setting a poor example by showing a bias toward representing some of the people at the expense of others. In other words, he seems to be much more inclined to believe Professor Gates’ side of the story than Sgt. Crowley’s.
So in my opinion, Obama gets about a C-minus in “Right Speech” for his remarks. Of course, the president’s not a Buddhist, but it’s a pretty universally good idea to think before you speak, no? 
It even seemed to me, watching him, that I could see the gears turning in his mind, the regret for his hasty off-the-cuff remarks clouding his expression as he hastily exited the conference. I’d tuned in hoping for details on reforming a broken healthcare system, and wound up staring at my screen bemused and dissatisfied, unsure what had just happened.
What do you think? Did Obama stray off track when he weighed in on Gates’ arrest?

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