Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: What’s a Liberal to Do When His Spouse Is a Trump Zealot?

posted by Joshua on February 19, 2017 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “What’s a Liberal to Do When His Spouse Is a Trump Zealot?

My wife and I have been married for more than 30 years. We have always had political differences — she leans right, while I lean left — but that has never prevented us from amicably discussing politics. However, all this changed during the recent presidential campaign, and particularly after the election of Donald Trump. She has become an ardent, nearly fanatical Trump supporter, reacting to any criticism of him, no matter how benign, with vitriol. She now says she “hates” all liberals, all Democrats and, particularly, Barack Obama.

I am weary — and frightened — of her diatribes and no longer bring up any Trump-related topic. But she frequently does. Is it ethical for me to remain silent when she goes off on “whining liberals” and “sore losers,” occasionally nodding, when that might be interpreted as assent? Name Withheld

My response: Is it ethical to remain silent??

I’m trying to understand what this guy is getting at. Everyone has their ethical standards, but I don’t know many who would find not talking unethical. I think he’s looking for an excuse to react in kind. The thing is, I have little doubt that he’s saying things that he considers benign that to his wife sound like attacks, critical, whiny, or like a sore loser. When people feel they are right, they feel stating their beliefs is just stating facts. People with different values will hear those statements as unasked for opinionated attacks.

My hunch is that’s the pattern hear. It’s possible the wife unilaterally changed and he’s an innocent bystander. I don’t buy it. He sounds too innocent and she too much a zealot. I could be wrong. I’m only going by what the note says. That’s part of why adults benefit from learning to handle relationship issues by themselves or people closer to them than newspaper columnists.

The New York Times response:

Marriage doesn’t depend on agreement, as James Carville and Mary Matalin would tell us, and few marriages would survive an insistence on complete like-mindedness. What seems unattractive in your wife’s position is not so much her political opinions as her intolerance of those, including you, who don’t share them. These people aren’t just misguided, in her view; they are a category of person, and an odious one.

What that means for you is that, at least in the domain of politics, she does not think you are worthy of respect — a sentiment that, given the weariness and fright you report, is plainly reciprocated. Marriage with someone for whom you have little respect is, no doubt, a common-enough circumstance. But it lacks something important. Clamming up when she holds forth means that you’re moving in that direction.

It has been said that a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument. Yet part of what’s valuable in marital love is honesty about the things that matter. Among those things is that your wife regards people with views like yours as simply contemptible, when they are not. For both of your sakes, take your side. You didn’t marry a vitriolic zealot, but now you find that you’re sharing a home with one. Ethics, in the end, is about living a good life. In that sense, your wife’s behavior poses an ethical challenge. Let her know.

I have been seeing my boyfriend for two years and have known him for four. He was born in Saudi Arabia, attended college in the United States and has used the time away from his family to explore his own thoughts and beliefs. I have a great deal of respect for him, and I love him deeply.

My parents, brother and friends have all shared with me that he’s a “keeper” and that I’m a lucky girl, which I agree with. My boyfriend is estranged from his family after 15 years in the United States. He chooses not to communicate with them often to avoid discussing his atheism. But he still worries he is a disappointment to them, because of the pressure on him, as the oldest son, to be something he is not.

A few months ago, we attended a family member’s memorial service, and we saw my father’s brother and wife. I am not fond of my uncle and aunt. They hadn’t met my boyfriend yet because I had chosen not to introduce him to them. When I introduced him to my aunt, she said, “I’m watching you.” We were both confused; I asked her what that meant. She replied, “He knows what I’m talking about,” and she walked away. We laughed it off as some kind of familial attempt to protect me from a broken heart.

A week later, I mentioned it on the phone to my dad. He paused, then told me he was hoping she wouldn’t say anything. He said that he had gone to dinner with my aunt and uncle a year ago, and they began grilling him about my boyfriend. He said that they wanted to know what his citizenship status was. Upon learning he was not an American citizen, they went on a long rant about how he was playing me, that he was just trying to get a green card from me through marriage. My dad told me that he defended me and my boyfriend and asked that they keep their opinions to themselves.

I decided to opt out of holiday celebrations with those relatives because I couldn’t imagine spending time in their home, let alone subjecting my boyfriend to their hate. Leading up to the holiday, my dad repeatedly told me I was making it hard on him, that I was putting him in a difficult position. I later found out that he lied to my aunt and told her I couldn’t attend because I had to work.

I’m worried that at future family gatherings, my dad will take his frustration with his sister-in-law out on me and my boyfriend. I’m also concerned that my boyfriend will consider ending our relationship to “protect” me. What course of action should I take for future interactions with this side of my family? Name Withheld, Michigan

My response: This seems a matter of working things out with the relatives. Charting a course involving relationships with people isn’t like charting a course for travels, where the territory doesn’t respond to you. People do, which means you will have an actively changing situation.

In other words, the course of action isn’t you thinking of what you’ll unilaterally do, but more you developing skills to handle the situations with your dad, aunt, and so on. It seems obvious to me the course most likely to work out for you is to talk to your aunt, uncle, and father to work things out collaboratively with them.

I would discourage charting a course without them, which in my experience provokes anger, envy, and other counterproductive emotions.

The New York Times response:

So your aunt and uncle have concluded that a foreign national who is in a relationship with an American is simply looking for a green card, even though they know nothing else about him. This smacks of bigotry. Anti-Arab prejudice isn’t uncommon in this country, as we’ve been reminded lately, and I’m sorry that it seems to be present in your family. If your father has a complaint, it’s with his brother and sister-in-law. I’d tell your family, including your aunt and uncle, the truth: You love this man, and you won’t be coming to family gatherings with your aunt and uncle unless they agree to be courteous to him. It’s not much to ask.

Is it wrong to read my child’s diary? My daughter, 9, expresses her innermost thoughts, concerns, fears, hopes for her future, friend/school issues and self-reflections in a diary. I feel it is important to read it, so I can frame a guiding narrative to boost her confidence, assuage her fears, minimize and redirect negative habits, provide encouragement. Even though my intentions are pure, maybe it’s wrong to invade her privacy. Is there an age range at which reading a diary is appropriate and an age when it becomes inappropriate? Theresa, New York

My response: “Even though my intentions are pure, maybe it’s wrong to invade her privacy.” I can’t believe I read these words from someone old enough to have a child. On top of that, you’re asking about wrongness and appropriateness—that is, about opinion that not everyone agrees on.

I suggest not basing your actions on opinions or abstract concepts but on the consequences of your actions. Do you think your daughter, if she finds out that you’ve deceptively read her diary, will care about the purity of your intent or if you or a newspaper columnist thinks you were justified?

The New York Times response:

The only reason her diary opens a window onto her soul is that she doesn’t know you’re reading it. There’s an element of deception here, then. Whatever the age is that you’re planning to stop your snooping, she’s going to be pretty mad when she finds out, and with reason. Children have survived to maturity for a couple of hundred thousand years without their parents invading their innermost thoughts. It can’t be necessary. Leave her diary alone.

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