Is Kicking the Dog Out of Character?

You may have seen the news feature of a company CEO, Desmond Hague, who lost his job after being seen in a video kicking a puppy in an elevator and lifting it up by the leash so that it was hanging by its neck. The video caught the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A website petition urged the termination of the CEO, who was eventually fired. Mr. Hague issued a statement apologizing for his actions, saying that he had become frustrated while caring for the dog, who belonged to a friend. He was quoted as saying “This incident is completely and utterly out of character and I am ashamed and deeply embarrassed”.

Without having personal knowledge of Mr. Hague, one wonders, is it really out of character?

Is Mr. Hague a wolf in sheep’s clothing that only came to light because his private life became public via an elevator videotape? Is he an inherently bad person who managed to hide for some time, but whose true colors have been revealed? Perhaps, but it is the human condition to be capable of both good and evil. We all have the potential to lie, cheat, steal and sin no matter how good we believe ourselves to be.

One might be tempted to judge Mr. Hague’s behavior harshly, assuming that character is fixed. Some believe that our character is formed at an early age through learning and experience and it solidifies into fixed traits that guide our actions over the course of our lives. David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote a book “Out of Character: Surprising truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.” They say that our character isn’t a stable set of traits, but is a shifting state of mind. Character is a battle between the sinner and saint that determines how we act at any time. Character unfolds and shifts over time and can quickly change. It is constantly changing to adjust to our needs, situations, and priorities. For example, a dishonest act doesn’t make a person dishonest across all dimensions. It’s just not that easy.

The authors indicate that when we act in the opposite of our values, it is because the mind has tricked us into thinking that, at that moment, what we are doing is okay. This is consistent with my work with domestic abusers. People whom abuse others seek power and control over another, because they think they are entitled and justified to do so. Mr. Hague held a belief, at that moment, that it was okay to abuse the puppy. The public disagreed with him.

If we all struggle with the internal sinner and saint was it unfair to fire Mr. Hague from his job as CEO of Centerplate? The company initially wanted to place him on probation, require him to donate $100,000 to combat animal cruelty, and to perform 1,000 hours of community service toward the welfare and safety of animals. But public pressure caused his employer to terminate him. He was publicly shamed which sends a message that this behavior is wrong and won’t be tolerated. We expect better of our leaders. Public humiliation is one means by which communities police its members.

Behavior can be changed through insight and education to some degree. We are not doomed to act in opposite of our highest values. We can examine our impulses and beliefs in order to act, more often than not, in a manner that is congruent with our ideals.

Rather than make a judgement of Mr. Hague, I prefer to make a recommendation. I recommend that he not be allowed to own or have responsibility for a pet, and that he participate in counseling. He could benefit from counseling to improve anger management, increase frustration tolerance and improve his judgement.

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