My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should I Keep Working for a Raging Bigot?”
I am a graduate student in a program designed to prepare you for a career working with rare books and manuscripts. I have a job as an assistant to an antiquarian bookseller. It is just the two of us, and he pays me very well, allows me to work the hours I want, gives me a good deal of responsibility and is willing to give me in-depth training. He is, however, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist. I am very liberal and find his ideas on many subjects to be repugnant. Though I have asked that he not talk about politics when we are together, he still does so from time to time. I often just let him speak and barely engage; debating with him only riles him and puts me in a bad spot, because I depend on the salary to pay for school and rent.
I feel guilty knowing that I am working for a man who looks down on most people who are different from him and knowing he would never say these things (or have hired me) if I were a different race or gender from him. My mind is seldom at ease at work. Is it ethical for me to continue working for this man, knowing how hateful he can be about others? Or is it O.K. because I know I am just doing this for the money and the training and would never condone his beliefs? Name Withheld
My response: After years of responding to these posts, why I am finally dawned on me. I can’t believe I didn’t see it years ago, which would have saved me countless hours of writing.
What was the revelation? How would it have saved me all that time?
The first part of the revelation is that for the infinite variety of questions this column chooses to respond to, a small number of responses handle nearly all of them. Longtime readers will recognize how often I write things like
There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.
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.
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.
Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.
Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.
The second part of the revelation is that reusing my responses reinforces that handling nearly all the situations this column responds to can be simplified into what simple, basic skills. Instead of pointing fingers, blaming, labeling, and judging, we can improve our lives with a simple (not necessarily easy) process, which I’ve also written before:
What should you do? 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 can save time and add value by copying responses. Copying adds value by showing that what works works. Of course, edge cases always exist, so standard responses won’t cover all cases. I expect an 80/20 or 90/10 rule applies, that people can handle 90 percent of situations they write about with 10 percent of techniques. There are also strategies I rarely recommend, such as portraying oneself as a helpless victim (that is, when you aren’t; when you are is another story) and getting institutional support, which seem more authoritarian, tear apart relationships, and don’t develop social and emotional skills.
As for this reader’s question about the book store manager, I’d start copying my standard responses, but I’ve spent a while writing here already and I think you can piece things together from my standard responses above. I’ll develop the responses of the 10 percent of techniques that handle 90 percent of problems in upcoming Sunday posts, or at least make it my goal.
I credit Mary Gentile, author of Giving Voice to Values and teacher of this approach. She coached me to run sessions with her material at Columbia Business School. I don’t mention her here much, but I think about the practice I learned from her most of the times I write my Ethicist posts.
The New York Times response:
My condolences. This sounds like a pretty poisonous environment. Someone who knows about workplace law in your country can tell you whether it prohibits this sort of thing. If it does, you might want to be firmer than just saying you would rather not talk about politics. Of course, your boss might fire you if you are too clear in your objections. But if he did, he might end up owing you money; ask a local employment lawyer. If you can’t afford one, there’ll be a clinic at the local law school, I bet.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m not sure you need to feel so bad about what you’re doing. You’re commendably repulsed by his bigotry and though you haven’t resisted as bravely as you might have, you certainly haven’t given in entirely. And you feel guilty because you’ve got a position that you think only white men would have been considered for. That sentiment, too, is honorable, but the wrong here isn’t yours, and you didn’t know the deck was stacked when you applied for the job. Yes, you’re benefiting from white, cisgender, straight, male privilege to a somewhat greater degree than others with those identities, but that’s not something you’re responsible for. Leaving your job in protest would open up a spot — for another white man.
Can you express your dissent somewhat more plainly, without jeopardizing a job that, in other respects, sounds pretty ideal for you? Then do so. Here we get into the niceties of interpersonal relations; some people have a knack for disagreeing without being disagreeable. You might see what you can manage in this regard. All things considered, though, you are morally free to pay your way through school this way. And when your studies are nearly complete, you might want to confront your boss more forthrightly about his odious opinions.
My boyfriend is a great person, and I really enjoy being with him. He could be the one. My only concern is that he made me promise not to talk to my ex-boyfriend and said that if I did, it would be the end of us as a couple. My ex and I were together for many years, helped each other grow and supported each other. He was a best friend/soul mate, and even though we separated, we valued our friendship and after a few months passed, we started catching up and knew we could still count on each other.
When my current boyfriend made me promise not to talk to my ex, I accepted, and my ex did, too, and wished me luck. I soon learned that he was going through a hard time and had left one graduate program for another. He helped me through a similar phase, and I wanted to be there for him. I reconnected with him, without remembering my promise to my boyfriend. We talked for an hour, as if nothing had changed, and he was grateful.
When I mentioned to my current boyfriend that my ex was having a hard time and I wanted to reach out, he reminded me of my old promise; I could not admit to him that I’d already spoken to him. My ex and I also have very close mutual friends who update us about each other and we always pass our “hellos” through them. It has now started to bother me that I’ve been lying to my boyfriend, but I am scared that telling him the truth will end our relationship. Is there a way I don’t lose my sanity in this situation thinking about how I’ve been lying and also how I came to accept my boyfriend’s demands and now have no way out? I believe he will eventually soften up, but he has not. What is the right thing to do? Name Withheld
My response: After all that writing for the first letter, I’m going to indulge in writing a likely less helpful response here, but airing my first responses. Two phrases look like red flags to me:
“He made me promise…” is the first and it sounds like someone trying to absolve him or herself of responsibility. How did he make you promise? I expect you would have written if he put a gun to your head. I suspect you chose to promise.
“I reconnected with him, without remembering my promise to my boyfriend…” I’ve heard a lot of turns of phrases, but never “without remembering.” The circuitous language implies to me cover-up or dishonesty.
Readers can read this letter however they want, but he or she looks to me as denying responsibility, either forgetting his or her word or lying about forgetting it, going back on the promise, and outright lying. Then claiming he or she might lose sanity. The boyfriend may have problems, but the writer definitely does. And he or she can change him or herself more than another person.
To the letter writer: I think the best you can do to improve your relationships is to improve your relationship skills, particularly the ones you describe lacking: taking responsibility, openness, and honesty. In the meantime, I expect you’ll get reap what you sow—that is, you’ll create outcomes based on their lack—which I don’t think you’ll like.
The New York Times response:
People are often anxious about the earlier lovers of their partners, especially when the ex is still a friend. Even when there’s no chance of a romance being resumed, jealousy, which is not the most rational of emotions, is common. Still, your boyfriend’s flat ultimatum sounds more than a little controlling and distrustful. Worrisomely so? I would need to know more to express a view rather than a suspicion.
You don’t seem worried by this, though, so let’s go with your judgment here. You say that when you reconnected with your ex, you had forgotten the promise. Even if you hadn’t promised, though, your conversation is clearly something that you think would have upset your boyfriend. You also sense that your ongoing indirect communications honor the letter but not the spirit of your agreement.
At this point, you should either admit to your boyfriend that you had the one direct conversation and assure him that it won’t happen again or else tell him that you don’t want to keep the promise and that you can only go on with your relationship if he accepts that. The first option involves sacrifice on your part. The second asks for a sacrifice from him. It’s important for both of you to be clear that a satisfactory relationship doesn’t involve giving in to every demand from your partner. But pretending to go along with a request is not just risky (because you might be found out); it’s a betrayal. And the longer a lie is unconfessed, the greater the threat it poses. Whether you choose to make a life together with someone whose distrust has proved self-vindicating is, of course, another question. Maybe, as you say, he’s the one; maybe he isn’t.
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