Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Ones Who Walked Away from Denver

And now for something completely different. The hint of a literary reference in the title makes this one, broadly speaking, an "ink" post. What we're really talking about today is ethics.

The one who walked away from Denver - the person whose story inspired this post - is a now-former professional football player named John Moffit. After a couple of years at the periphery of the National Football League, Moffit made the choice to walk away while he still could walk, turning his back on what many of us would see as a considerable sum of money. He made this choice after an offseason spent reading the works of thinkers including Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama, after reflecting, and after concluding that the expectations for his life were part of a larger machine disinterested in his personal well being. Not that many years ago I'd have tipped my hat to his personal choice while lamenting the loss of football talent for the Autumn Sundays' spectacles. Today, I just tip my hat, as I've walked away from Denver myself a long time ago.
John Moffit

The title of this post, for those who don't read the same kinds of stories I do, is  nod to Ursula K Leguin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". In a nifty coincidence, I just learned that it was published four decades ago last month (and been anthologized approximately 17 million times since then). Those who haven't read it yet can feel free to do so now.  Go ahead. I'll wait. (Aside: those of you who don't know Le Guin have some marvelous reading ahead of you!
Ursula K Le Guin. A national treasure.
She's a speculative fiction author, but also one of the most brilliant and talented American fiction writers of the latter half of last century. There are not words for me to greatly enough recommend her work. That should, perhaps, be a separate post. End of aside.)

Are you back yet?

Great. To recap those those of you who didn't take a short-fiction detour, Omelas is a lovely little utopian city which owes its success to the suffering of a small child. Everyone knows this, and most go on with their lives. Some, however, on learning this, choose to walk way and leave the comforts and wonders of Omelas behind them. One lesson I take from this (with the caveat that boiling any piece of literature down to a single lesson is reductive in the worst way possible) is that there is value in the choice to not take pleasure from the suffering of another, even  if your walking away does nothing to reduce that suffering. You can speak it aloud, you can make yourself an example or, at the very least, feel that you are acting within your values system.

My argument against football, for those interested, is that the game itself is inherently violent. Serious injuries, especially repeated traumatic brain injury, are so much a basic part of the sport that I don't think they can be redressed significantly enough for me to be able to watch in good conscience unless the game itself were fundamentally altered. There's also a celebration of violence within football culture; we applaud the dramatic hit, the hard tackle. I will (and do) watch baseball in which injuries still happen but are tangential to the actual game, not the apparent goal of it. Your mileage, of course, may vary but it is something I urge you to consider thoughtfully. Choose to watch or choose not to, choose to celebrate or choose not to, but do so mindfully knowing that this, like all other things, is an ethical choice.

Circling back to my professional life, I'm fortunate to work in a field which is, for the most part, not ethically problematic for me.  Many of the clients I've worked for are in the higher education, government, or healthcare verticals. What would I do if we won a football stadium project and I was handed a part of it? That's an interesting question, and one for which I don't have a ready answer. Would I risk being labelled as less than a team player by turning the work down, requesting that someone else work on it, or even resigning were my hand forced? Would I decide that the issues with football - including the political and economic issue of public funding of for-profit businesses - are great enough to risk my career? That I doubt. It is something, however, I would approach mindfully and make careful judgments as to how I can balance 

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