Comment of the Day: “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies”

He's young, sick, and poor. His mother must be right, then.

Gary, an occasional commenter, grabs the Comment of the Day with a provocative one on a post from quite a while back. To refresh your memory, a sick child named Enzo Pereda asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation to get him a one-on-one cooking experience with “The Barefoot Contessa,” Ina Garten. Garten refused, and the boy’s mother led an online shaming exercise, condemning Garten, encouraging boycotts of her Food Channel show, and launching other bloggers and media on an anti-Ina rampage. Ethics Alarms’ verdict was that the boy’s mother was engaged in compassion bullying, demanding that this cable celebrity do her child’s bidding, alter her own schedule and priorities, and grant her son’s arbitrary “wish” because he happened to be ill. Garten had no obligation whatsoever to do what someone, or even everyone, might consider a kind act, and the one who was acting unethically was Enzo’s mother.

Gary’s comment goes to the heart of what Ethics Alarms is all about. Here is his Comment of the Day on “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies.”  I’ll have some additional comments at the end:

“I agree, nothing unethical about Ina’s actions. However, you seem to imply that if her actions are ethical, that any negative reaction is unjustified. My position is that I’m totally with Enzo’s mom because I like kids more upper crust snobs.

“Now you will say I’m being illogical, ignoring the facts, etc. True, but ethically I have NO obligation to either Ina or Enzo’ mom other than what I want to get out it. I don’t want to invest anything more into the story than I already have. Celebrities are only celebrities at our whim and our whim does not have to be nice, logical, ethical (in your opinion), rational, informed, or anything else. To say otherwise would be forcing on me an obligation. Ina wants me to buy books and watch commercials, Enzo’s mom wants Ina to cook for her son and have people send money for his treatment.

“To those ends, Ina is selling the story that I can cook good food and have a beautiful life in the Hamptons. Enzo’s mom is selling the story that Ina is an upper crust snob that couldn’t care less about kids. I like the upper crust snob hating the sick kid story. Am I unethical to Ina because it may be untrue? I’d say no.

“I am under no ethical obligation to behave, feel, contemplate, not contemplate, understand, investigate, or react to the above situations in any other way than the way I want to because for me, it is nothing but a story.”

Deciding that you want to be critical of one individual and support another because you like one party’s class or station in life—or race, creed, religion, age, weight or political beliefs—has a technical term to describe it: bigotry. And you are right, Gary..there is no social or ethical obligation not to think like a bigot, and or not to ignore objectivity, fairness and justice for bias, stereotyping and classism. There is a social obligation not to act like a bigot, and simply from long personal experience, mind you, I think it is a neat trick to think like a bigot and defend bigotry without acting like one sooner or later, but if you can pull it off, my hat’s off to you.

Nothing in the world is “just a story.” Stories aren’t even “just stories.” Events, whoever they involve, and the stories they inspire, give society and our culture an opportunity to state, define, confirm, amend, debate or reject its cultural norms about what is good and bad behavior, how people in that culture should try to act, and the kind of conduct they should avoid.

And yes, everyone in our culture has a shared obligation to participate in the process. Nobody has a duty to weigh in on every such story raising ethical judgments and choices, and you seem to think that you have no duty to participate in the process at all, unless the event has direct application to you personally. This isn’t ethical, but pragmatic, and since you endorse bigotry, I’d say your point of view is well—too well–represented by others already: they don’t need you.

It’s true: nobody can force you to care, just as nobody could force Ina to care. There is hard and civilization-defining work to be done to decide what values America and Americans stand for, however. Shrugs are not helpful, or constructive.

2 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies”

  1. Jack, I was a participant in a discussion recently that came up during a faculty inservice session. Someone proposed that, whenever someone (authors, historical figures, etc) came up in a course, and that person was/had been a gay or lesbian, that fact should be pointed out. This would, they said, provide positive role models for students, reminding them that gays and lesbians could be great and contributing members of society. OK, but one of the historical figures mentioned as a lesbian was Eleanor Roosevelt. Someone pointed out that that wouldn’t be accurate, the evidence for Eleanor Roosevelt having been a lesbian being dicey, at best. It didn’t matter, said the person making the proposal. Essentially, saying that someone famous was a gay or lesbian fit a narrative, or story (see where this is going?), and that fact was less important than any concerns of factual accuracy. If Eleanor Roosevelt had not been, in truth, a lesbian, it didn’t matter because it was a story that served the purposes of a larger truth. It was, in essence, truer than true. But the person making that proposal is not alone out there, as Gary just proved. This notion that objective reality must take a back seat to stories that support a somehow larger and, presumably, more virtuous truth…well, that’s a rallying cry for bigotry, if ever there was one. Ethics aren’t just subjective values, things that were once arbitrarily decided upon as good, and accepted as such ever since. They serve demonstrable, objective purposes. They allow us to live peaceably and sleep soundly at night, knowing that the world won’t fall irreparably to pieces while we do so. The Barefoot Contessa isn’t selling a story, she’s making choices, just as Enzo’s mom is making choices, and those choices can be either ethical or unethical. That’s not a story, that’s a fact.

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