Ethics Hero: Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax

But it worked for Scarlet!

But it worked for Scarlett!

I’ve made Hax, the Washington Post’s relationship advice columnist, an Ethics Hero before. This time it’s for something more than her usual spot-on instincts about right and wrong, and more about her method of expressing them. You know I am not fond of weasel words, equivocation and gentle rhetoric when emphatic prose is called for, and Hax, though she is more prudent than I, laps her competition when it comes to firing off both barrels when it is called for.

In this response, she was responding to a man whose brother stopped speaking to him after he gently suggested to him that his niece had a huge honker for her face and it might be time to visit the local plastic surgeon. The advice-seeker lives  “in a community where a lot of teenage girls have cosmetic surgery at 16,” he explained, and both his wife and daughter had their noses made button-like. “Was I over the line in making this suggestion in a private setting?” he asked Hax.

Her unrestrained, wise and glorious response:

Of course you were, and you know you were. You just called your niece so ugly she needs to be fixed, to her own father — and you presumed he needed you to say so. Insulting and self-important.

You sent a letter to me, too, so clearly you’re not some naif shaped solely by the values of your little button-nosed pond; you swim to some extent in the ocean of our culture. And while cosmetic surgery might be so common in our ocean by now that its bolder recipients laugh about it openly, it’s hardly the simple snip-and-go you make it out to be. There are legitimate matters of safety, body- and self-image, cultural identity and aesthetic value, just for starters, that are far from pat or settled — and that’s just in the collective view of society. Apply these matters to the life, confidence and physique of a barely pubescent girl, and you were into outrageous-overstepping territory pretty much when you opened your mouth.

All of the above makes your excuse — that many of the fish in your pond are surgically altered in youth — sound completely disingenuous, so you can add insulted intelligence to your brother’s list of valid grievances against you.

I’m saying all of this as someone who has no emotional ties to anyone involved and who fully supports the right of any adult to take control of his or her appearance, your wife and stepdaughter and the rest of Stepford included.

When I mentally put people and faces I love into this equation, though, I want to roar. People tend not to grow fully into their bodies until well after age 16. A nose that looks disproportionately large on a teenager can be Modigliani-stunning on a 26-year-old whose face has caught up. And even when it doesn’t, the thought of some uncle privately advising a dad about his beloved child of any age, “Uh . . . that whole face thing isn’t goin’ so well, is it,” I need to bite down on a stick.

“In private,” by the way, just tells me you were fully aware this was touchy stuff.

So take the above as a rough estimate of the repairs you’re facing with your brother. I won’t defend his not speaking to you — all this should be coming from him, not me — but I also wouldn’t expect him to bounce right back if you merely toss off an “I’m sorry.”

This apology has to show your brother that you get it now, that you should have before, that your values need an overhaul and that you don’t expect him to trust you until you prove you’re worthy of that. In other words, apologize, make it good and try some scrutiny — of yourself and of the moral dry rot in your community — while you wait.


17 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax

  1. Jerkassery on all sides, and I wonder sometimes if these columnists work up their own letters and responses, or deliberately pick the most outrageous ones they get to respond to. Jerkassery on the writer’s part for making personal remarks (never OK) and overstepping the line on parental decisions. Jerkassery on the brother’s part for acting like a flouncing woman and refusing to speak to him (what are they, in grade school?), rather than telling him exactly what to do with his unwanted thoughts. Jerkassery on Carolyn’s part for accusations of “moral dry rot,” which make her sound like a pompous windbag on some imperious throne, but the least amount, since she has set herself up in a job where people seek out her opinions.

    • Jerkassery on the brother’s part for acting like a flouncing woman and refusing to speak to him (what are they, in grade school?), rather than telling him exactly what to do with his unwanted thoughts.

      Wrong, unless that “[j]erkassery” is indeed his motivation – but that makes your description circular. It is far more likely that he is sensibly keeping his distance and avoiding occasions when either brother could make matters worse. He would in fact be stupid to re-open relations unless and until that could be done safely and temperately.

  2. P.S. Jack, you wrote above that you are in favor of “emphatic” prose rather than taking the high road when it’s called for, and I am guessing that mostly applies to writing, speechgiving, etc.. However, what about face-to-face? Just how “emphatic” is it ok to get before you cross the line into jerkassery or abuse?

    For that matter, what about the risks of getting too “emphatic” in person, like maybe the other guy deciding he’s going to make his counterpoint with his fist? I know we’re not in high school, and every dispute is not supposed to escalate into a fight, but everybody, right or wrong, has a breaking point, where logic, etc., goes out the window and it goes to fight or flight.

    Here we don’t hesitate to write what we think, some of it pretty harsh, but I daresay if we were all actually face to face, a few of these discussions would have ended with somebody getting hurt, because it wasn’t about the discussion any more, it was about getting too invested in being right and silencing the person you didn’t agree with.

    • I have a lifetime reputation for taking no prisoners in oral exchanges as well, though I have greatly tempered that trait, its still true. True also in individual communications through letters and e-mails. Not incivility, just more direct than most people.

      An ethics principle has been important in controlling this process: have every conversation with anyone, foes, creeps, idiots, anyone,as if you are talking to someone whose long-term friendship is more important that maximizing your argument. It’s hard, sometimes impossible, but it’s effective. And ethical.

      • I would love to see you take on some of these immoral scumbags who have a reputation for wordsmithing, like George Galloway. I was not the biggest fan of Christopher Hitchens, whose views on certain things I found excessive, but I very much enjoyed seeing him take down Galloway, who I think is basically a professional jerk who benefited tremendously from loose bookkeeping and the ability to lie convincingly in one breath and hurl razor-sharp insults in the next. By the way, I’d also use him as an example of someone whose mouth finally pushed others into making their counterpoint more directly at least twice, once when someone threw a rubber stress ball at his head while he was campaigning and knocked him right out, a second time when someone, angered by his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, assaulted him in the street and broke his jaw. There are more than a few folks in DC I would not mind seeing get the same treatment.

  3. Leaving the jerkass aside for a moment, what doctor is performing cosmetic surgery on minors? The fact that their faces are growing means that the end result of the surgery is unknown, and it is per se unethical for a surgeon to perform an unnecessary procedure with an uncertain result (all surgery has an uncertain result to some extent – I went into reconstruction and nearly lost a leg – but an ethical surgeon only works if the odds are firmly in his favor and specific strategies can be taken to mitigate risk) on a patient who is not yet considered capable of informed consent RE medical procedures. The fact that these childrens’ insane parents gave their consent, and probably pressured and railroaded their kids into these surgeries, does not change the doctor’s duty as a professional to step back and exercise discretion. Just as lawyers have a duty to not take frivolous cases, surgeons have a duty in many cases to avoid unnecessary and invasive procedures when possible.

    I have some experience in this regard. When I was 10, I went under the knife for an entirely necessary maxillectomy, a partial removal of the upper jaw and cheekbone, due to an ossifying tumor. While all doctors on the team agreed that reconstruction was the endgame, they also agreed that it had to be put off until I was 19, so they could be sure the bones of the skull would be done growing. So, I went through a series of prosthetics until I was 19, at which point I had the aforementioned reconstructive surgery.

    We see from this example that even with surgery deemed medically necessary, the ethical surgeon avoids performing plastic/reconstructive surgery on patients who have not yet grown into their bodies. Whoever is giving teenagers nose jobs needs to lose their medical license.

    • Amen and amen, as someone who has worked on more than a few cases that involved injury to kids, full correction of which had to wait until they were fully grown for just the reasons you set forth.

  4. 1: Hax to Advice Seeker: Insulting remark rightly puts brother’s nose out of joint

    2: Hax to Advice Seeking Superficial Uncle: Insulting remark rightly puts brother’s nose out of joint

    3: Hax to Superficial Uncle: Take That, Superficial Jerk

    4: Hax to Superficial Uncle: Burn in Hell, Bastard Asshole”

    5: Hax to Bastard Asshole: Insulting remark rightly puts brother’s nose out of joint

    6: Take That, Advice Seeker Carolyn Hax: Insulting remark rightly puts brother’s nose out of joint

    7: Burn in Hell, Bastard Asshole Carolyn Hax: Insulting remark rightly puts brother’s nose out of joint

    8: “Burn in Hell, Bastard Asshole”

    Now, you’ve seen a variety of ways (though not an exhaustive list) to present Carolyn Hax’s article. In the 1st one, I’ve present her article, with NO commentary of my own added. I slowly went down the continuum to where I no longer was merely passing on Carolyn Hax’s article, but actually demonstrating my own opinion. Any reasonable reader would have recognized these subtle shifts in presentation as clear indicators of *MY INTENDED MESSAGE*.

    #1 would be a completely passed on article by Carolyn Hax, with no personal commentary of my own added. This would be a perfect analogy of a simple Retweet on Twitter.

    #2 adds my own personal commentary by describing the advice seeker as Superficial, though my added commentary IS NOT FAR from a reasonable interpretation of the truth.

    #3 treads into unethical territory as I begin to misconstrue the message of Hax, even if one could reasonably assume she thinks this about the Uncle.

    #4 takes #3 to the extreme and completely misconstrue’s Hax’s article and is definitely in unethical territory.

    #5 is slightly back into ethical territory in terms of not misconstruing Hax’s article, but still in unethical territory because of MY ADDED COMMENTARY

    #6 is where my added commentary stops crediting anything to the original author, though I retain her name in the link to the article, at this point, I cannot claim to be “paraphrasing or summarizing” the article or headline of the article. At this point, my commentary is MINE and a reflection of MY opinion – and can be construed to be unethical on its face as it is needless taunting, though, in this case one could argue it would be a reasonable reaction to a Superficial Uncle.

    #7 takes #6 to the extreme and makes my message very unethical.

    #8 takes everything to the extreme by both expressing an unethical message as well as implying that is the message of Carolyn Hax, when it isn’t.

    Now, in a previous post, Charles Green severely embarrassed himself by dying on a hill claiming that Twitter, by convention, espouses the notion that you don’t have to identify the source of an article if you are only paraphrasing the article or the headline of the article. This is silly, of course, because it leads to Messages of examples 1-3 being confused for messages of examples 6-8.

    But, I don’t think it is a convention, and if it is, it’s an unethical one.

    Charles would have us believe that, in exact parallels above, a message of the form of #6 should be interpreted as a message of the form of #1, 2 or 3.
    Which is obvious nonsense as it leads to a considerable ability to say one thing and then backtrack during backlash and pretend like you meant another…you know, Lie.

    For clarification, this analogy do not fully parallel the Ifill episode in the following way:

    Carolyn Hax’s message is not unethical, whereas the IranDeal’s message was already before Ifill got a hold of it and added her own unethical commentary.

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