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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