The Quandary of Doing What's Right

So recently I was involved in a discussion that didn't turn out to everyone's satisfaction. The scenario is this:

I was at a social engagement where everyone knew one another fairly well; in a small-group discussion when one of the participants — let's say Jack — started describing a bigoted encounter he had with someone he associated with as part of his job. Just as he was about to quote the third-party, someone walked into earshot — let's say Jill — who's a member of the group who was targeted (and also the only person around who's a member of that particular group). So Jack stopped and said, "I'll tell you in a minute," and everyone got quiet. I insisted that he continue and invited Jill to the conversation to hear — after all, this is a quote of an encounter, and not representative of his personal belief.

So we all talked for a few minutes. Naturally Jill was shocked but apparently not upset at what Jack had to say. Things went okay and the topic changed and the group broke up a bit. Jack asked that I never put him in that situation again. I apologize but add that he shouldn't bring up such things in my presence because I would probably react the same way.

The universal response has been that I was wrong. I should have let sleeping dogs lie, let the conversation go fallow because Jill probably didn't notice, and everyone would have been much more comfortable.

Now I don't think my solution was ideal, but I think it was better than nothing. First of all, the argument that Jill didn't hear anything is specious — for if it was indeed true, then Jack should have continued without pause, and clearly even Jack felt that Jill could hear him. Second, I don't believe discomfort is as bad as it's cracked up to be — for is it better to maintain comfort or point out something unethical? "Well," you argue, "Jack wasn't really being unethical, right?" At that moment, probably not, but I think that overall his behavior wasn't purely right. Here's what I think the chronology was in this case:

  1. He had an associate who surprised him by saying something bigoted.
  2. He disagreed with the sentiment but probably said nothing of it to avoid a conflict at the time.
  3. I assume his association with this other person changed — perhaps he never needed to deal with them again, and perhaps he just avoids associating with them. But what he didn't do was to directly address the issue — for instance to say that he was disappointed that such ignorance persists in this day and age.
  4. When relaying the story, he was not proud of his actions — and he did not want to reveal that he didn't defend the group to which Jill is associated.

Let me put it another way, this time with a hypothetical encounter. Two guys are talking. One is Jewish and the other is not. The one who's not reveals that he works with a guy who's anti-Semitic.

DAVE: "Don told me this off-color joke about Jews at work today." (unspoken: "it's okay to say this because it wasn't me".)
JOE: "So what did you do?" (unspoken: "such jokes reinforce that being Jewish is inferior in arbitrary ways and I think you agree that this is not true".)
DAVE: "Well he's my boss so I couldn't do anything." (unspoken: "I didn't want to make him angry because I might lose my job — or worse. You know how those people are".)
JOE: "What a prick." (unspoken: "I would have hoped that you are a good enough friend to help me even if doing so is not to your immediate advantage. I feel disappointment because I now respect you less than I assumed I could".)

On the surface, Dave and Joe seem more comfortable than if they dug deeper — for there is tremendous discomfort that runs very deep. But is that really healthy? Doesn't it serve to reinforce bigotry? If Joe confronted Dave, I think Dave would react defensively — that he would be more upset about being called out for his lack-of-action than with the original situation.

So then you ask, "what am I supposed to do about them? I'm not a bigot and I don't support them. Isn't that enough?" Let me just put it this way: are you confident and proud of your actions? And I don't mean as a form of denial: can you really defend your beliefs, thoughts, and actions in a rational and sound way?

The reason why I live by this code is that it helps me get to sleep at night. For as much distress I cause in people, I need to come to the conclusion that I did the most right thing I could at the time — to be confident and proud of my actions.

I'm not thrilled about making Jack uncomfortable. I don't know if it changed anything for the better, if it made Jill upset, or if it disrupted Jack and Jill's relationship. But I think that what I did do was force Jack to reconcile his actions — for if he was proud and confident of his behavior, he'd have no problem facing Jill. (So I guess I have an ulterior goal to coerce other people to be the best they can be.)

The catch is that I don't know if I read the situation correctly. If, in fact, things happened like I thought they did, then I'm proud and confident of my reaction. When I look at my own life experience and situations in the past like these, I think my assessment was correct, though.

Now if only I could forgive myself for things I couldn't have known …

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One thought on “The Quandary of Doing What's Right

  1. >I’m not thrilled about making Jack uncomfortable. I don’t know if it changed anything for the better, if it made Jill upset, or if it disrupted Jack and Jill’s relationship. But I think that what I did do was force Jack to reconcile his actions — for if he was proud and confident of his behavior, he’d have no problem facing Jill. (So I guess I have an ulterior goal to coerce other people to be the best they can be.)

    I think you blew it. But if I'd have been you, I might feel differently, and I'd probably justify myself in exactly the same way. However, I think you blew it, and two words in this excerpt reveal why: "force" and "coerce". It is one thing to confront people about speech or actions you consider immoral. It's quite another thing to take it upon yourself to embarrass people over issues of doubtful immorality and little consequence just because you think you have the inside track on what's right and wrong, what's really going on inside their heads, what constitutes proper behavior in a given social situation, etc. In your discussion you confuse these two quite different things, and use the former to excuse the latter. Several commendable reasons for Jack hushing up his tale present themselves (he didn't want to embarrass Jill, for example), but you assume you know his motives and that they were unworthy — but even if that were true, you had no way to confirm your opinions before you acted on them, and even if you could do, your actions still remain unjustified. Suppose I had an invisible spirit who lived on my shoulder and whispered into my ear the secret motivations of everyone around me. Would I be justified in embarrassing people at every turn by airing their dirty motivations to all and sundry?

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