My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Do I Have to Tell My Father About My #MeToo Experience?”
In light of the #MeToo movement and all the people coming forward about sexual assault, my father recently asked my sister if she had ever been assaulted. I myself was assaulted by the son of close family friends when I was a child, but I have never told my family about it. I am scared that my father may ask me if I was ever assaulted as he asked my sister. I don’t want to lie to him, but at the same time I’m really not ready to talk about it yet with my family, especially because I know it will be hard for my parents to hear, and it will drastically alter our relationship with our close family friends. Can I lie to my father if he asks me, or should I tell the truth? Name Withheld
My response: You’re framing the situation as if you have two options, which forces you to choose one. You have more than two options.
“Should I …?” … It looks like you’re asking someone else to take responsibility. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.
I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Asking what you can or should to won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.
The New York Times response:
As a rule, a person who has been through a traumatic event is the one to decide if and when and with whom she will discuss it. You don’t say what age you and the son of these family friends were when you were assaulted, or what sort of relationship you had with him then or have now, but you don’t suggest that he poses an ongoing threat to anyone else. In the absence of such a threat, the rule applies. Your ultimate concern here can be for yourself.
Clearly, you’re still disturbed by what happened. If you haven’t already talked the issue through with a therapist, you might want to do so; a professional could help you think about whether you would be helped by revealing the truth or whether it would be better for you to let things lie.
Speaking about the episode could have positive effects, to be sure: movements are strengthened by participation. This one won’t be derailed by your reticence, however, and you seem mostly to be worried about the effect that disclosure will have on your family and on your family friends. That’s decent of you; these are relevant considerations. But again: What’s most important is to think about its effects on you and how you want to handle this.
You’re rightly concerned about lying to your father. That’s a bad thing in itself, and it’s a betrayal of trust. Still, the obligation to be honest could be trumped if the consequences to you of answering him truthfully were substantial. At the same time, there are other possibilities than a straight-out lie. One would be to reply that, yes, you have been assaulted but that you don’t want to discuss the details with him and you would like him to respect your privacy. Yet, many parents wouldn’t be able to rest being told only this much, and you would have to feel confident that your father would.
Another approach would be to say that you will tell him what happened, but only if he promises not to tell anyone else. You know him and can judge whether he would find it possible to keep that promise and what it would cost him in terms of self-restraint. If you underline the fact that it was the son who was responsible, not his parents, he may be able to maintain his relationship with them even if he knows what happened. So you have much to consider.
A close friend of mine recently split with her partner. I found out that since their breakup, he has been sleeping with another person in our social circle. My friend and I are not close to this woman, but we do see her from time to time. I know that during their breakup, my friend expressed to her partner a wish for this exact situation not to occur. I have been wondering if I should tell my friend that this is happening. I worry that it would only cause her pain after an already-painful breakup, but I also feel dishonest in keeping it from her. I am also concerned that she will find out about it regardless, perhaps in a way that is more hurtful than coming from me, someone she trusts. What is the right thing to do? Name Withheld
My response: What is “right”??
Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.
The New York Times response:
People don’t have a right to determine whom an ex sleeps with. It was fine for your friend to tell her partner that she didn’t want him to sleep with a mutual acquaintance, but unless he seriously pledged not to do so, he wasn’t under any obligation to comply. What you’ve learned is not that he has done something wrong but simply that he has done something that she didn’t want him to do. Given that they’re no longer a couple, she doesn’t have a right to know.
It would be one thing if she had explicitly asked you about this or if, by keeping your counsel, you were acting in a way detrimental to her interests. You mention the possibility that she could learn it, more painfully, from someone else — but you don’t say whether that’s very likely. If the issue doesn’t come up and the only effect of telling her would be to upset her, you’re entitled to let it slide.
It is tempting to find high-minded reasons to pass on gossip. On the whole, though, the truths you should feel obliged to convey to her are about matters of real importance in her life, not just anything that she would like to know. And the sexual adventures of an ex, despite what she may currently feel, don’t qualify.
There’s the risk, of course, that she’ll find out and then ask you if you knew. At that point you would owe it to her to say that you did know and considered telling her but decided that you wanted to spare her the distress. The strength of your relationship would be tested by its ability to withstand this revelation.
My friend recently took a job at a nonprofit organization providing services to adults with developmental disabilities. From the start, there were issues: Instead of providing staff members (who work from home) with laptops and phones, the center requires them to use their personal equipment and “take it off your taxes.” Same with using personal cars for business. While the New Jersey rate for mileage reimbursement is 31 cents, the organization only reimburses 14 cents. Payroll is consistently late, and expenses have not been paid for three months. Now my friend, who has serious health issues, was told by her doctor that her employer-sponsored health insurance was canceled for nonpayment of premium. My friend pays into her health insurance each week by a payroll deduction. She needs a CT scan and cannot pay for one out of pocket. She called human resources several times, but they always say that they are working on the issues, with no result. My friend is sick and worried about her future. Should I report the organization? Whom do I report them to? My friend cannot afford to do without the money they owe her or her health insurance. Name Withheld
My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.
You didn’t share enough for us to understand the situation, in particular how you reporting the non-profit affects your friend’s money and insurance. Are you suggesting the organization will close and not pay her? Or that they’ll fire her?
Your limited information suggests broad solutions. I recommend:
- Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
- Figuring what skills you have and can create
- Creating as many options as you can
- Considering what outcomes each option will result in
- Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
- Implement the option you like most
- Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise
I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.
The New York Times response:
Being a nonprofit with an admirable cause doesn’t entitle an organization to violate its obligations to its employees. You might call the office of your state’s attorney general and ask where you should report these problems. (In New Jersey, you will probably be referred to the Department of Labor.) But first consult your friend. Exposing her employers in this way risks her relationship with them, even if she isn’t the one who does the reporting. She’s entitled to know what you have in mind.
I am a medical resident at an academic hospital. About two years ago, I received a small grant from a trainee-subsidized patient-care fund to provide two iPads to pediatric psychiatry patients who spend many hours in our emergency department awaiting placement. I purchased the iPads and software but ran out of time and steam as I encountered various logistical and practical obstacles. I am now about to graduate from the program; I have tried to find another trainee to whom to hand off the project, with no success. What is my moral obligation regarding what to do with these iPads? Can I just donate them somewhere? Can I take one home for my kids? Am I required to try to resell them and return the money to the patient-care fund? Name Withheld
My response: First, I’ll editorialize about how humans trashed the planet. We buy stuff we don’t value without considering what to do with it after the novelty wears off. You barely care about these things. Buying non-degradable material things with lifetimes of months or less is just filling landfills. People are legislating to ban straws and single-use plastic bags. I don’t know why they stop there and don’t include nearly-single-use gadgets. I recommend watching the Story of Stuff and acting on it.
You ask about “moral obligation”. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.
I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not a moral, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.
The New York Times response:
Let’s start with the fact that you took money to do something you haven’t done. At the very least, you should inform the fund administrators, apologize and refund the money. Only after you’ve discharged your duty to the fund can you think about what to do with the iPads. Reselling them now won’t allow you to recover the full amount, of course, because they’ll have declined in value. If you’ve managed to make the fund whole and still have the devices, though, what you do with them is up to you. So you can certainly donate them to anyone you like … including your children.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees