Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Do I Report a Teacher’s Racist Facebook Post?”
A Facebook friend from college, who is a public-high-school teacher, recently posted his drawing of an Asian with a coolie hat, buck teeth and slit eyes (he is not Asian) next to a pair of fortune cookies. As one of his few Asian friends, I told him it was hurtful. He apologized and took it down.
Do I have an obligation to let the school know of his racist Facebook post? I don’t believe that kids should be exposed to racist stereotyping, and I no longer trust this ex-friend’s judgment on what constitutes racism. But I don’t want to overreact because I am hurt and angry. Name Withheld
My response: As I read your description, he didn’t know. As they say, don’t attribute to malevolence what ignorance adequately explains.
Why don’t you talk to the guy more—not to tell him how wrong you consider him, but to learn from him? You’re proposing escalating significantly when it sounds like you don’t know what motivated him.
Asking if you have an obligation suggests you want to absolve yourself of responsibility. I recommend taking responsibility—I would suggest to resolve things, not bludgeon the guy with self-righteousness or institutional power, which you don’t sound like you lack, but with open, two-way communication.
The New York Times response:
Circulating hateful stereotypes degrades our common culture. That your friend did it suggests he’s lacking in both sensitivity and common sense. You’re entitled to be upset. But you have no real evidence that the attitudes displayed in this Facebook post are reflected in his behavior as a teacher. That he has been your friend all along suggests that he is capable of civil relations with people of Asian ancestry. That he apologized suggests he realizes he did something wrong.
Reporting friends to their bosses is a big deal. And suppose you did so. The logic of your complaint suggests that he should be fired to protect his students, but wouldn’t that be an overreaction? Your own — quite justified — reaction makes it unlikely he’ll do something like this again. You’ve done what you needed to do.
Several floors in my building are being renovated. Work often goes on at night and on the weekend. The workers don’t speak much English, and when I’ve asked them to be quiet, they’ve stopped their work.
This makes me wonder if something illegal is going on, such as the workers’ being undocumented. I worry that these workers are being mistreated and that the work may not be up to code. I don’t think it’s right that Americans miss out on job opportunities because illegal workers are used to get work done more cheaply. That said, I don’t want anything bad to happen to the workers. I sympathize with someone who wants to stay in the U.S. badly enough that they’ll work in poor conditions. What is my best course of action? B. A.
My response: To go from their stopping work when you ask them to be quiet to illegality, mistreatment, and code violations seems a big jump.
Even if they are illegal immigrants doing illegal work, they’re working in a system. Do you want to change the system or just their situation? To change the system, I wouldn’t know where to begin, but I expect you could work on it your whole life and still make little progress. To change their situation, talking to them would seem the best start. Since you don’t speak each other’s language, you’d probably have to start with finding a translator.
I wouldn’t “buy them a puppy,” as I describe it. Helping people without confirming with them that what you think will help them can often end up like buying someone a puppy: no matter how much you consider your actions a gift that they should value, they may not value it and they may end up feeling burdened or not helped. Meanwhile you think you helped them. A tangled situation of your creation.
The New York Times response:
A recent study concludes that about 13 percent of workers in construction in the United States are undocumented immigrants. So it’s quite possible that your non-Anglophone construction workers are undocumented. But according to the study, only a slightly smaller percentage of construction workers are legal immigrants, some of whom won’t speak English comfortably, either. And if the builders are breaking the terms of their permit, they might well instruct workers to cease work if anyone complains. So I wouldn’t be confident that your hypothesis about their status is correct. But let’s say you’re right. Although you worry their work won’t be up to code, I know of no evidence that shows undocumented equals lower quality. And because so much construction is done by undocumented workers, the fact that this company is using them doesn’t, by itself, suggest lower standards.
As for whether they are being mistreated, we can assume that their status (if undocumented) makes them vulnerable to accepting low wages and poor working conditions and that, nevertheless, they wouldn’t think you were doing them a favor by reporting them. If you don’t want to harm these workers, then, you probably shouldn’t file a report with the immigration authorities. They may be breaking the law, but the penalties for their discovery in this era of federal enforcement would be severe, and you’d be partly responsible for those penalties.
One thing you can do is complain to the building’s managers. Management isn’t likely to care greatly about the status of the workers, but under pressure it might be brought to take the work permits seriously. The other thing you can do is contact your city’s buildings department, which is in charge of enforcing the permits. The workers aren’t the issue here; the bosses arranging for after-hours construction need to be brought in line.
At my gym, I am confronted daily with a couple who appear comfortable perpetrating fraud, flouting laws and taking advantage of the system. They were arrested for fraudulently claiming Medicaid benefits. They use a handicapped-parking tag to park in convenient spots, while running into the gym and taking strenuous group exercise classes. They are overt and shameless in this behavior.
They are often overheard talking about vacations and cruises, which would attract no attention were it not for the obvious assault on ethically minded people. I do not wish to create a scene, but this behavior is abhorrent to many of us. How would you recommend dealing with this situation (short of joining another gym)? J. B.
My response: “They are often overheard…” … “ethically-minded people…” … “abhorrent…”.
They may have problems, but you definitely do. Whatever their problems, I’d fix mine first if I were so self-righteous. And what’s with the odd passive voice: “they are often overheard…”?
“Living well is the best revenge” has worked better for me than any other form of getting back at people. If they’re breaking the law parking, you could try flagging down a cop to give them a ticket.
Still, I think you’ll find that you improve your life and the world more by developing your skills to reduce your wishing (I would say craving) to create a scene. I believe that you’ll never run out of people with different values than yours. If you have to defeat each, you’ll never get past your crusade. I predict you won’t be effective either, since they’ll see you as imposing your values on them.
When you overcome your compulsion to escalate, I predict that you’ll effortlessly discover more effective ways to handle them and other people with different values than yours, even when you feel as strongly as you do about them that you’re right and they’re wrong.
The New York Times response:
Your fellows in fitness sound awful. Their shamelessness and indifference to law and morality are naturally galling to you and other decent folks in the gym. But I’m not sure why you think that discussing vacations is an ‘‘assault on ethically minded people.’’ Is it that you share Immanuel Kant’s view that the wicked should not prosper? If so, you have a great deal more to worry about than these two scofflaws. The world is full of prosperous reprobates. Kant thought that the only way to sort things out was to have faith in an afterlife, where people’s happiness is proportional to their goodness. You could take consolation in this thought if that’s what you believe — although you might want to reflect on the balance of good and bad in your own life before gloating.
If it makes you feel better, you could tell them what you think of them — but truly shameless people aren’t going to be affected by that. To restore the moral balance, you could print out articles about their suspected offenses and leave them by their gym lockers. Or you could try filming them parking with the handicapped tag. (Isn’t this what cellphone cameras are for?) Sending the results to the police might inconvenience them, though the cops may well think they have larger crimes to deal with, like the one for which these people have actually been charged. But these forms of harassment will make people think that you’re the one who has a problem.
The best solution is to take a few deep breaths whenever you see them, ignore their boastful chatter and hope for the day when you read in the paper that they’ve been sentenced.
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