What Do You Stand For?

Published: June 27, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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AMC’s Mad Men is rife with ethical issues. In creator Matthew Weiner’s ‘60s universe of advertising ad men and women, Joan Holloway is one of the most captivating and contradictory characters on the show.

Originally seen as a Marilyn Monroe type, Joan has been quick to dispel any notion of air-headedness. In 2008, the Chicago Tribune wrote that “Joan certainly can be brusque with junior secretaries, and in a brilliant scene in the August 3 episode, she eviscerated one ad man’s pretensions and affectations with a few curt, stinging sentences.”

Joan Holloway, (now Harris) has no trouble in demonstrating the necessary integrity in standing up for herself and others.

This brings me to Margaret King, PhD.

Director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia think tank that studies human dynamics, values, and decision-making, Margaret’s own story of integrity demonstrates the ethical challenges in defending her own work against a colleague’s deliberate plagiarism.

“Ethics (as opposed to morals) always implies the context and understanding of the big picture, cause-and-effect relationships, and the fact that you can’t change just one thing without a ripple effect system-wide.

“I believe that, for many people, there is no single defining ‘moment of principle’ that sharply illuminates one’s character. Instead, we face something far more difficult: a constant barrage of small challenges to ethical standards in which the simplest solution is to just let them go without contest.

“As a case in point, I recently opened a newly published book by a colleague of long standing only to discover that two of the chapters credited to this author were – word for word – ones I had written early in my career. What’s more, a careful reading of the book has convinced me that many, if not all, of the other chapters were lifted whole or in part from papers delivered at a conference organized by the plagiarist back in the 1970s.

“As I said, the ‘author’ was a colleague of long standing. The works of mine that he appropriated were early ones and not critical to my current life and career. It is an academic publication, so there is no issue of his profiting financially from my work. On the other hand, to raise the issue publicly means denouncing someone I considered a friend.

“To prove my case in full to the publisher means dedicating time, money, and effort that would be better spent on things and people I consider of far more immediate importance. In other words, I have nothing most people would consider tangible to gain – and a lot to lose. I did consider ‘letting it go,’ but an attorney friend put it most succinctly: ‘You have to decide how much you are willing to pay to resolve this. You can decide to let it go, but it’s going to cost you in peace of mind. If you can afford that, then do it.’

“There really is no escape from taking ethical positions, since the decision to do nothing is in itself a decision. Applying an ethical standard requires understanding not only who you are, but also who you want to be. I’m now engaged in a conflict I neither sought nor wanted. My friend was right on target. I can’t afford to do anything else.

“Consequences of my ‘moment’: a giant headache for me, for my business partner, for the publisher, and the plagiarist. Currently the publisher is trying to stall any action by asking the perpetrator of this crime if he’s done anything wrong: the answer, of course, is no. They don’t want to take action: it’s inconvenient, expensive, and time-consuming. But now that they’ve been put on notice, they must think about consequences.

“Colleagues are supportive but really don’t want to get involved. I don’t blame them. Except that this case involves defense of authorship, the basic coin of academic achievement.

“Ethical Principle: ‘You don’t give up what’s valuable about yourself.’ ”

Joan Holloway couldn’t have said it any better.


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