Hate Thy Neighbor: the Cranston Ethics Train Wreck

Cranston, Rhode Island resident Edward Jimmis, it is fair to say, is an idiot.

That’s okay. There are a lot of idiots, and they do very well. Many of them, perhaps a majority, are even in Congress. Now, when the constituents of a Congressional districts represented by an idiot get tired of the idiocy, they have a very effective remedy. They can vote the idiot out of office, and this is fair, ethical, and effective, though not exercised nearly as often as it should be. What is the ethical response, however, when you discover that your neighbor is not only an idiot, but an especially hateful and uncivil idiot? This is the challenge facing the neighbors of Edward Jimmis. They may not have the right answer.

Jimmis had a series of disputes with his neighbor Bob Gold, who is in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a potentially fatal form of cancer. This special feature of Mr. Gold’s life inspired neighbor Jimmis to display a wreath with a red bow on the window of his garage. There was also a hand-lettered message attached to the wreath. It read:  

                 “Glad you have canser. So die stupid.”

As I said. Idiot.

This didn’t sit well with Jimmis’s neighbors, who are now picketing his home and demanding that he move. They don’t want a hateful idiot like him living with them, and one can hardly blame them. Nevertheless, they are now the ones behaving unethically. The hateful idiot has a right to live in the neighborhood, and even has a right to post offensive signs on his garage. His neighbors don’t have to like him living there, and they are well within their own rights, as well as within sound ethical traditions, to shun him, refuse to speak to him, not invite him to block parties, and properly enforce the cultural standard that human beings do not mock the sick and infirm, but are kind and considerate toward them. The neighbors have a cultural duty to reject hate and cruelty, but they can’t behave hatefully in doing so.

Cranston Police Chief Marco Palombo Jr. told those carrying placards (“Leave our peaceful neighborhood,” “Evil to cancer patients,” “Shame on you,” “God please help him” and more) that “the fact that you are all here together is a good thing.” I think he’s  right, as long as the demonstration isn’t perpetual, and doesn’t escalate into poisoning Jimmis’s pets, letting the air out of his car’s tires and vandalizing his home, which I assume is on the horizon unless the situation is defused. (It was  a bad idea to allow members of the police department to join the demonstrators, however. This is irresponsible, and technically referred to as “throwing gasoline on the fire.”)

Cranston’s mayor is also involved, and said through a spokesperson that he supported Gold and that “we don’t tolerate this kind of behavior in Cranston.”  Again, I think this is probably right, as long as not tolerating the conduct doesn’t mean running the author of the conduct out of town on a rail.
Jimmis, amusingly, ironically, or idiotically (I’ve made my choice), has replaced the offending sign with another that reads, “Love Your Neighbor.” I’m guessing this is an exhortation to the better natures of his infuriated neighbors and not a reminder to himself.  In either case, it’s too late.

Unfairly enough, the series of events has placed unwanted responsibility on the victim, Gold, to defuse the situation. Only a gesture of forgiveness and a plea from him to the neighborhood to let Jimmis be an idiot within the bounds of the law and the First Amendment and to limit their disapproval to silent contempt is likely to prevent something really bad from happening. Gold has an ethical duty to do this, because he is the only one who can. The problem is not his fault, but if it escalates further because he refuses to subdue his rising blood pressure and gorge and tell the idiot next door that he is forgiven, it will be his fault.

A core ethical principle is that if you are in a unique position to address a harm or potential harm, you are obligated to do so. Gold was the victim, and only he has the power to make sure that his neighbors’ intolerance of hate and their concern for him doesn’t move into unethical territory. Police, news reports say, are trying to get Gold and Jimmis to sit down and make peace. Jimmis, who may be an idiot but is no fool, is willing.

So far, Bob Gold is not.

8 thoughts on “Hate Thy Neighbor: the Cranston Ethics Train Wreck

  1. Gold can forgive Jimmiss if he chooses. But, he can also go to the neighbors and ask them to leave Jimmiss alone. The kind of behavior Jimmiss displayed (not just idiotic but unspeakably cruel) perhaps does not merit forgiveness, especially by the victim.

    Gold, again, can tell his neighbors stay away from Jimmiss completely., to shun him without violence. There are other remedies to Jimmiss behavior, which don’t have to escalate to violence, and which Gold can help deflate. But I disagree that Gold needs to “forgive” such behavior. Gold owes Jimmiss nothing.

    PS Jimmiss’ new placard — “Love Thy Neighbor” — is too little and too late. It’s only defensive, and it’s seems pretty clear that his original “Hope you die” reflects his true feelings.

  2. I don’t care HOW Gold defuses the situation. The point is that he is the only one (other than Jimmis, who can leave the neighborhood and shack up with Casey Anthony) who can do it. I agree: he doesn’t specifically have to forgive the creep. Send him a spelling book.

  3. What a crazy situation. I think you have the right take on the situation – I believe by just reading this essay I grew a little. I hope Mr. Gold continues to recover, and finds the strength to forgive his jerky neighbor.

  4. (NB: I am from Rhode Island, but hadn’t heard this story yet.)

    I have a friend with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s got a good job and health insurance. He’s getting his treatment at Mass General, which is considered to be the fourth best oncology department on Earth. He has a pump, so the treatment can go into his heart and be evenly distributed through his body, as opposed to getting it injected into a vein and causing immense pain. He takes painkillers to tolerate the pain of the treatment killing off his cells. Once he forgot to take his anti-constipation medicine; he won’t be doing that again anytime soon.

    The pain my buddy has gone through in the past few months, which is apparently excruciating, unrelenting and exhausting, might preclude him from even having the fortitude to forgive someone who has merely been inconvenienced. “Oh, there’s protesters outside your house? Yeah, my white blood cells are having civil war radioactive something-or-others. But your problem is pretty bad, too.”

    There was a boss where I worked who treated me like shit for ten years. He’s gone now, and thank God. There was one year where he made himself scarce. I thought he’d broken his back. Someone claimed he had cancer. Despite how much I didn’t like him, I would never claim he “deserved it” or “should die.” Once you make an oath like that, how can you bemoan any medical fate that befalls you, or any fate at all?

    I’ll say this. If it were me, I doubt I could muster the strength to call off the hordes. Of course it’s the right thing to do. I just doubt I could do it. The best I could probably do is, “Remember, he DOES has the right to say that. You don’t have the right to hurt him.”

  5. Without getting into the First Amendment issues connected with this, in Virginia, at least, it is a Class 3 misdemeanor to picket someone’s residenceor or other wise act in a manner that “disrupts or threatens to disrupt any individual’s right to tranquility in his home.” See Section 18.2-418 and 18.2-419, Code of Virginia of 1950, as amended.

  6. Gold doesn’t have to go to idiot. Couldn’t he just address his neighbors telling them he appreciates their support but to just drop the whole thing? Yes,it would be the Godly thing to do to forgive idiot but maybe not necessary. I disagree that if Gold does nothing he is responsible for others behavior. Part of trouble with our society is not taking responsibility for our OWN actions.

    • That’s a trap, though, Karla—it allows us to avoid fixing a major problem because it’s someone else’s job. If you are the only one who can fix a problem, fix it. It is a rationalization to say, “well, i could have stopped that disaster from happening, but it wasn’t up to me.” Yes, it is—if noboby else will or can do it.

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