Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Must a Woman Confront a Bigoted In-Law?

March 27, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Must a Woman Confront a Bigoted In-Law?


My father-in-law is quietly racist, sexist and anti-gay. He was kind enough to offer me a job at his firm. I had previously voiced my (respectful) dissent, but this became tiring when I saw him every day. I began to ignore his comments but felt guilty, because I believe that silence equals complicity. One day, after he said something particularly mean and I said nothing, I assuaged my guilt by making a donation to Planned Parenthood. Since then, I’ve adopted a strategy of donating to different organizations whenever I fail to speak up. The amounts are small, but large enough to be uncomfortable for me; I see these as a kind of punishment for not being courageous or energetic enough to keep standing up to him.

My question is threefold: First, ethically, must I disclose to him that his words result in my funding organizations whose work he is against? Second, is my method an ethical way to assuage my own guilt? Third, if I do not disclose the donations, may I take comfort in a ‘‘revenge’’ of which the subject is never aware? I have been wondering about this for a long time, but it is a secret from my husband, and I am too embarrassed to discuss the issue with friends. Name Withheld

My response: My, how superior you are that other people’s flaws tire you so. And then you have to deal with the guilt of not improving him. And now, equating silence with complicity, you are as bad as him. What a perfect day, this Easter Sunday, to contemplate your suffering for this man’s sins. I wonder if we all shouldn’t take a moment to honor your martyrdom, giving beyond where it hurts.

I probably shouldn’t mock you because it probably achieves the opposite of my goal of illustrating the problems with holier-than-thou self-righteousness that you don’t tell anyone about, except anonymously. Unchecked and unaccountable, the sentiment grows, polarizing your view of yourself into a Church Lady versus a growing part of the less-holy-than-thou world.

Mocking also undermines a more effective punishment, which is your own anguish you cause yourself with the dissonance between your believing yourself so good and simultaneously weak that you can’t find a way to resolve.

I’ll leave you with a way out, which is to suggest considering the opposite of secret, silent self-righteousness: communicating with empathy, compassion, and humility. Why don’t you talk to this guy with the expectation that you can learn from him, that you might not have any more access to right, wrong, good, bad, and evil than he?

You might be surprised at what you learn and how it expands your ability to act on your beliefs.

The New York Times response:

You have my sympathy. Your father-in-law sounds like a real charmer. A marriage brings you together with more than a spouse, and sometimes that’s a burden. (It can also be a plus; in your case, it has landed you a job.) But you’re not responsible for the backward views of your father-in-law, even if he is also your employer. Nor are you obliged to keep reminding him that he is wrong; you have already tried to correct him, and it made no difference. So you aren’t complicit with every bigoted remark you don’t vocally object to. You have made your position clear.

Why, then, does he keep at it? You might wonder if he hasn’t taken to expressing his views as a kind of power play, hoping to provoke you. If he makes sexist remarks that cause you and other women to feel seriously discomfited, he may even be in breach of the law, given that — for firms with 15 or more employees — creating a hostile work environment based on gender is a Title VII violation. (The same goes for race.)

But those are all strikes against him, not against you. You need not bear the whole burden of trying to correct his moral errors. It’s sad that you feel you can’t take this up with your husband. Might you reconsider? I would have thought that others in the family would want to share with you the work of edifying your father-in-law. After all, as long as he is not actively harming blacks, women and L.G.B.T. people, your father-in-law is the main casualty here, because, from an ethical point of view, his views diminish him.

I don’t wish to discourage you from giving to good causes, but you shouldn’t do so in a spirit of self-flagellation. You haven’t done anything wrong; there’s no guilt for you to assuage. Nor does the idea of revenge strike me as an attractive motive.

Must you tell him what you’re doing? The reason to do so is that it would, no doubt, annoy him to discover that each nasty word was funding causes he ­opposes. But letting him know won’t change his ways. I would give to the causes you support in a spirit of generosity and leave the mean spirits to your father-in-law.

I am a transgender man who is regularly mistaken for a woman in public places. When my partner and I go out to eat, the waiter will often refer to us as ‘‘ladies.’’ This is annoying, but I have found that it’s more annoying to correct the offending person and deal with the inevitable paroxysms of embarrassed apology. Basically, I don’t want my gender to be a big issue in public. However, I wonder if I have an obligation to my fellow transgender and gender-nonconforming citizens to prevent future microaggressions by educating the people I encounter on gender-neutral language. Name Withheld

My response: You didn’t ask a question, so I won’t answer any, even to “educate” you on the “microaggression” in your assigning to others responsibility for your feeling annoyed. If they feel happy and you feel annoyed, why do you consider yourself in a place to “educate” them? Because of your greater knowledge? I agree they are acting out of ignorance, but not willfully, and no one knows everything so we all act in ignorance. What effect does embarrassing them create?

What if you could “correct the offending person” without making them feel embarrassed? Do you want to “correct” them for their sakes’ or yours, under the guise of helping third-parties? I suggest that if you want to lead these offending persons to change their behavior, starting by putting their interests first, not yours, will lead you to find ways to communicate more effectively.

In short, I suggest the issue is not if you have some abstract obligation but can you develop the social skills to communicate with empathy and compassion to achieve your goal so the offending persons thank you for sharing instead of suffering your paroxysms.

The New York Times response:

There are two issues here. One is about taking the trouble to identify correctly the gender that people are presenting in public. Your waiters are failing to take up the cues to your gender identity that you make available to them. If you point this out to them, they may become more attuned to the kinds of things they should be picking up on. You have good reason to do so, then. Yet the whole weight of this educational project shouldn’t rest on your shoulders; it would be going beyond the call of duty to do this every time it happens.

A second issue is whether the solution is to use gender-neutral language. More generally: Is the right way to behave with all people to ignore their gender in every professional interaction? Waiters and other service professionals typically respond to social cues about what people want. And in your neighborhood, they may have judged that pairs of women going out to a meal were often pleased to be called ‘‘ladies.’’ Possibly they have also judged that male diners like to be greeted as ‘‘gentlemen.’’ If these judgments are correct, then it’s not simply the waiters who would need to change their attitudes before everyone decided to adopt gender-neutral language.

So there can be a tension between the concern, in the public arena, that transgender men be recognized as men (and transgender women as women) and a desire to avoid acknowledgment of gender. And where we settle in this matter is going to have to be worked out by all of us together, whatever our gender identity or presentation. When it comes to the public response to transgender people, we’re making progress. But there’s still a long way to go.

My cousin has a 3-year-old son who shows signs of being developmentally disabled. None of us in the extended family are doctors, much less specialists in autism, but we are all aware that early detection is the key to managing symptoms. But my cousin (as I would guess is common) does not want to consider the possibility that her son is autistic. So even though the boy is slow to talk, uncommonly afraid of new situations and flaps his arms when overstimulated, she chooses to think that his behavior is normal and will go away on its own. Others have hinted and tried to nudge her into going to a doctor, but she just sort of dismisses it. I’m not sure that having a firm conversation will do anything other than permanently damage my relationship with my cousin, but I shudder to think that I am somehow contributing to a greater problem by doing nothing. To me, there is no harm in going to a doctor, who may tell her that nothing is wrong. But then again, if she wanted to, she already would have. What recourse do I have to help this child without hurting my cousin? Name Withheld

My response: The key phrases I see in this letter are “hinted and tried to nudge” and “just sort of dismisses.” As with many cases in this column, I suggest the answer is not what should the writer do, but how can they achieve their desired goal. That’s a question of social skills.

The key phrases I called out suggest that no one has clearly spoken to the mother beyond hints and attempts to nudge, despite their confidence in their seeing the situation better than the mother. I suggest looking not at the child’s perspective or yours, but the mother’s—the person you want to influence. How do things look from her perspective? How does she feel?

When you understand her perspective better, remembering that understanding doesn’t mean agreeing, I think you’ll realize that there are more options than hinting, trying to nudge, and firmly. Could it be that what’s hindering your communication with her is not her unwillingness to see her child’s perspective, however much that may be an issue, but your unwillingness to see hers?

The New York Times response:

Your cousin thinks — or at any rate, hopes — there is nothing wrong. You and others in the family suspect otherwise and believe that early diagnosis and treatment may give the child better prospects. Yet, as you suggest, these are exactly the sorts of things that only an expert can properly assess. It is likely that your cousin is taking her child to visit the pediatrician in the usual way, and maybe she has already been reassured on the topic. (Or, I suppose, she might even have a diagnosis she is keeping to herself.) But there is evidence that nonspecialists often don’t identify children with autism-spectrum disorder as early as they could. So, yes, consulting an expert may well make sense. One question you don’t mention is whether you’re the right member of the family to convey the message (and in a more straightforward way than hinting and nudging). Would it come better from her parents or yours, or from your grandparents, if they are around? You may not be the member of the family with the most influence. But if you are, and you have done your best to inform yourself about the situation — ideally by conferring with specialists — then the cousin you should worry most about is not the mother but her son.

Identifying the right specialists may be a challenge; there is a great deal of controversy about diagnosis and prognosis for people who have been placed somewhere along the autism spectrum. Still, if you’re close enough to your cousin to fear straining your relationship with her, you’re close enough to take a practical interest in her life and her child’s. My reaction may be, in part, a reflection of having spent much of my childhood in Ghana, where all the adults in an extended family feel some responsibility for all the children. (Never a shortage of busybodies!) But I would worry less than you do about your cousin’s response; whatever your family’s traditions, she should surely recognize that you’re acting out of love.

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