Comment Of The Day: “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies: An Ethics Drama”


I haven’t made one of the spammed Ethics Alarms hate comments a Comment of the Day for a while, but this one really asked for it. The commenter, who calls herself Sarah Bradley but isn’t, was spitting vitriol over a five-year old Ethics Alarms post that I remember well, the story about a mother’s attempt to shame and bully a cooking show star, Ina Garten, who politely turned down her sick son’s “Make A Wish Foundation” request that she hold a special live cooking exhibition just for him.  The mother  used her blog to call down the web Furies on the chef’s head, and I, as you may notice that I often do, pointed out that the conventional wisdom that the chef deserved the abuse was ethically obtuse, writing in part…

Garten’s refusal was not wrong, and it was not justification for criticism. There are many legitimate reasons for her choosing not to give Enzo an audience, including just not wanting to do it. Do all of us have an obligation to do a favor for a stranger simply because they asked for it? No. Do we have an obligation to do the favor if the stranger is sick? Young? Old? Dying? No, no, no and no. Accept any other answer, and we are declaring that whenever the Make-a-Wish Foundation delivers a request, it is really a demand, backed by the threat of public humiliation….dictatorship of the desperate, attack of the compassion bullies.

Would I make Enzo’s wish come true, under almost any circumstances? Yes. Ina Garten doesn’t have to. Would most celebrities? Yes…and Ina Garten still doesn’t have to. Being kind and generous is ethical, but saying no when there is no ethical duty to say yes is not unethical. If Enzo is making a request, then the request can be refused. If its isn’t really a request, but an order, Enzo has no right to issue it. There is a duty to rescue. There is a duty to confront and report wrongdoing. But a duty to comply with the random desires of sick children? Absolutely not.

I wish all of my posts were as clear and well-argued as that one. Yet “Sarah” thought it was deserving of an abusive, ethics- and logic- free attack, because she reasons like about 85% of the commenters on most blogs and news aggregating sites. There no objective logic, no balancing of interests, no understanding of values, no ability to distinguish rationalizations from ethical analysis, no ability to see a complex situation from multiple perspectives, no objectivity. All there is to support “Sarah’s” indignation and fury is knee-jerk emotion and pre-digested platitudes. She is typical of the average member of the public who has never been trained in logic or ethics, doesn’t understand why that’s a handicap, and who allows their lizard brain to guide them through life, making society and the culture a mine field for the rest of us.

I didn’t get into the ethics field to help people like Sarah, because people like Sarah are too far gone to help. I’m an ethicist to try to help people, and their kids, and anyone they may have an influence upon, to avoid becoming like her. When you can’t think any clearer than Sarah, you are incompetent at life, and others will suffer.

Here is Sarah Bradley’s Comment of the Day, on the post, The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies: An Ethics Drama:

You’re a disgusting pos and a sad excuse for a human being. Your article makes me sick jack Marshall. This woman is horrible and you are supporting her? Is there a club for like-minded jerks to support each other that you and her are in? It shows that your character is no better than hers. Her fans are who make her rich and famous. Most celebrities can see that but she can’t because she’s too selfish. If you are going to be a complete asshole to a sick and dying kid, you deserve the backlash from the community. You’re sick in the head for even writing this article on support of this dreadful woman and even sicker for attacking his mother. Karma got her I hope it gets you too.

24 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies: An Ethics Drama”

  1. There’s a perfectly sensible rationale* for celebrities and eminent persons (two separate classes of human beings) to not grant personal “wishes” like that. In fact, most of them … well, the NOT grandstanding, publicity-seeking, attention-needy, sick, sad, sorry me-me-mee’s — will have others to protect them from starting down that very very slick, slippery slope.

    Requests are made every day, many are fulfilled, I think, but not in the light of flash bulbs, tweets, or fundraising ticks against the name of a charitable organization. I’ve only seen the effects of one, but it was a doozy.

    In one of the early years of the AIDS pandemic, on a 20-bed dedicated AIDS unit which also doubled as a hospice in a city hospital, a woman walked in one night. The dinner trays had been removed, the lights and TV volume turned down, conversation was low in rooms where nurses were chatting with patients. The woman introduced herself to the clerk – unnecessarily and graciously — and asked if she could visit. “Visit who … ah, what name?” asked the ward clerk when he had set his jaw back in place. She pointed to Room 1. “I’ll just start over there and go round, if that’s okay?” The clerk decided he didn’t believe his own eyes, the voice familiar from dozens of films, or his knowledge that this could not possibly be some hitherto unknown actor/impersonator, and started to stand up. Then he caught sight of two well-dressed bruisers who had entered behind her. She waved them back out to the hallway and told them to go have a break. The clerk sat back down without saying another word. And the woman began her rounds.

    In the next hour and a half (about that — no one can remember exactly when she came in or when she left), the woman made her rounds. In every doorway she stopped and asked if she might come in and visit a while, pulled up a chair (after the first room – the nurses took turns making sure there was a chair at every bedside), laid her hand on the sheet where it could be reached and introduced herself. [The very act of non-health care personnel, other than partners or close friends (and the occasional family member) daring to touch an AIDS patient at that time was practically unknown. The fact that the virus, HIV, could not be transmitted through intact skin — and that AIDS itself was properly not transmissible at all since it referred only to a group of non-contagious infections — was not yet (and still isn’t, in some ignorant quarters) believed by the general public who had been media-panicked for several years.]

    The woman knew there was no risk; she’d done her homework. She held the hand that was eventually offered, or pressed the back of her hand lightly against a cheek, bending up close to hear a weak whisper, holding a bendable straw to lips — and spoke as if they were old friends, staying long enough for the patient to be at ease. Pulling from some huge reservoir of funny stories, she set each one naturally into something she said the patient had “reminded her of.” She left a touch and a smile behind in each bed and nearly everyone could hear her hearty laugh. The last thing she said as she left each room, including the nurses’ lounge, was a statement rather than a question: “You can keep a secret, can’t you.”

    And they did. Sort of. There have been variations on exactly what was said and to whom, but I gleaned as much as I could (to put in That Book that never got written, of course) from the Lounge when I came on for the 11-11 shift, and from one of the patients who called me into his room the next morning just before I was going off. He had been suffering from dementia and a deep clinical depression for over a year and now, apathetic and often out of touch with reality, he was not expected to live much longer. “I just wanted to tell everybody,” he began, and I waited for his tale. “You’ll never guess what a beautiful dream I had last night,” he went on, animated as I’d never seen him before, “You’ll never guess who I dreamed came to see me and sat right there . . . .” and proceeded to describe every detail of the woman’s appearance, the entire scene and script, in fact, down to naming the perfume she wore. “It’s funny, though,” he said, musing, as I was leaving. “I can still smell that perfume.”

    And so could I.

    *not to be confused with a rationalization

    • I feel sorry for the little boy’s family. However, I do feel they could have steered him away from the idea of having a meeting with the “Barefoot Contessa.” He was only about 5 years old. Children that age don’t really understand how the world works, they are half in fantasy land. The parents could’ve told him, “She can’t do it, but she sent these special cupcakes just for you.”
      It seems they became very emotional and encouraged the little boy’s idea too much.

  2. I’ve grown deeply suspicious of people who use the term “community.” The term seems to be used by passive aggressive people, mostly progressives, who march around claiming there’s an amorphous, powerful (but very earnest, nice and well-intentioned) group of people right behind them who, if you don’t agree with them or give them what they want, will string you up or burn down your town. I don’t ever want to be interned in a community.

  3. You know, I often wonder what would happen under the following scenario to one of the people who insist that Garten had an obligation to make Enzo’s mother’s wish — oops, sorry — Enzo’s wish come true.

    Suppose you are in the grocery store picking up three or four items. At the checkout counter, the cashier hits you up for a dollar for the local Kid In Need. You decline.

    Then the cashier uses the microphone to humiliate you by making sure everyone in the store knows the total dollar amount of the food you are buying (and what type of food) and how you can clearly afford to donate but are too greedy and selfish to give even one dollar to a child’s cause. People start giving you dirty looks and mumbling about “rich” people being stingy.

    Maybe you don’t have an extra dollar (you brought along only what you knew you’d need), maybe you were in the store yesterday and gave the dollar then, maybe you are suspicious that this fund-raiser is just a scam, maybe you get hit up for a dollar here and a dollar there every time you walk into a business and you have to set boundaries. Or maybe you just don’t want to donate.

    What would your reaction be to the cashier doing that to you? Complain to the manager, boycott the store, write a letter to the store’s owner? Why would do you any of those things? Because the cashier was rude to you, that’s why. You would be furious at being singled out in front of strangers. Because your money is your money and it’s not up to the cashier to decide how you are required to use your money or to question your reasons for not donating!

    How is this different than web-shaming Ina Garten (or anyone else) for turning down a charitable request? The Barefoot Contessa had every right to say, “No”, just as you have the right to keep your dollar. No one should be required to to donate time, money or resources against their will because an angry mob thinks they know what’s in that person’s bank account, on their calendar or in their heart.

  4. If you’re implying that in the Ethics Dept, I “need help” – you’re absolutely right. Of course I do, this stuff can be hard sometimes, and I can use all the help I can get!

    So can you, of course. You realise this, which is why you’re an expert on the subject, listening and evaluating as well as talking and educating, even changing your mind on the rare occasions when someone gives a convincing argument why you’re wrong.

  5. This woman is functioning at about the developmental and ethical level of a two year old. This prolonged angry rant is about what you’d expect from a child of this age. It’s very difficult for them to get that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Be very glad that you are not their psychiatrist treating them.

  6. 85℅? I think you are too generous. I’d say comments on any mainstream news or commentary site are 99℅ worthless, broken down as 33℅ predigested and regurgitated talking points, 33℅ snark and sarcasm, and 33℅ viciousness and insults. This idiotic post shows all of those.

    • I’ll accept that estimate. It is truly shocking: I start reading comments to a legitimate post elsewhere, and it immediately turns to playground level nastiness and idiocy. Luckily, the subject matter here is self-selecting, but I still have to purge several shots from the gutter with almost every post.

      • This is the only site I read comments on. As you say, the comments on most sites are horrifying. I don’t read them any more than a watch video-taped beheadings.

        • The Ina Garten topic was the first one I ever read here. I couldn’t believe the viciousness of the commentary I was seeing everywhere on the issue, and I just didn’t agree. I started looking for commentary that wasn’t bashing her, and there was Ethics Alarms in all its glory. Five years already! Five years of informed, reasoned opinion, and a civil comments section. Thank you, Jack, thank you everyone.

  7. There was another situation kinda like that up here in Canada.

    A propane plant near an urban centre in Alberta exploded. That doesn’t happen very often, and understandably the people who lived nearby were unsettled by this, especially since this was back in the early 2000’s, right after 9-11.

    What does this have to do with anything? There was a family, we’ll call them the Klumps. The father is morbidly obese and bed ridden, the mother is blind and the daughter has severe mental problems, and (I think, if I remember right) downs syndrome. How this happens is probably a story all on its’ own, but it did… So here we are.

    The home-care nurse (because of course there is), who we will call Lucy, is packing up for the end of the day when Mount Propanius explodes. One of the neighbours runs by and yelling something about terrorists, and that they’re all going to die.

    Lucy has a choice. Does she risk death attempting to get Mr. Klump into a wheel chair and to the van, guide Mrs Klump to the car, and manhandle the disturbed Klumpette into the backseat, or does she just run for the hills?

    Lucy booked it.

    She was later shamed, fired, and charged with something… Although I remember the charges didn’t stick. It hit me then that there are two sides.

    The family would have been terrified. The man couldn’t move, the wife couldn’t see and the kid was probably screaming bloody murder. They probably thought they were going to die.

    The home-care worker was also terrified. She wasn’t trained to deal with situations like this, and frankly, she wasn’t being paid to do it. She also probably thought she was going to die.

    It would have been absolutely heroic for her to have stayed and helped the family out. Instead of bad news coverage, she might have been a front page fluff piece. But she didn’t, she ran, and so she was the villain, and a social outcast. It hits me now as it did then… Why are those so very often the choices we’re given: Hero and villain? Why can’t the experience and the common sense of the average Joe actually be the average? I have no idea how I would have behaved in that situation, and especially at that time… I’d like to pretend that I would have helped the family. But I think in reality, I’m probably even less predisposed to helping them than Lucy was… There’s a reason I’m not in home care.

    • That IS a villain or hero dilemma. My favorite was the dumb reality show called Scare Tactics, where they would set up unsuspecting marks in horror movie scenarios to watch them freak out. A guy taking a date in a limo ride sees the car stall, and big hairy monster (a guy in a suit) attack the (actor) driver, pull him out of the limo and apparently rip his arm off. The guy, thoroughly freaked, bolts, leaving his screaming date in the limo. He was rather sheepish after the gag was revealed. His date was not laughing.

      • The caretaker was, however, a villain. It’s like the baby sitter when a maniac attacks the house…you took the job, and you have a duty. “I didn’t bargain for this!” isn’t an excuse.

        Ooops…another rationalization!

        • I don’t know if it’s that clear though…. We don’t expect policemen to fight fires, fire fighters to perform emergency tracheotomies (spelled that right first try!), or doctors to arrest criminals… And I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect those things from those people. The sticking point for me was “She wasn’t trained to deal with situations like this”. Sure, it’d be great if they did, but are they villains for not?

          On a slightly different, but similar track: Is the guy who says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” a villain? I mean, Individuals, even couples, don’t have much of a chance in a bear attack… It might seem like a dick move, but if the choices are both people die heroically, or one person lives…. I gotta say, I like living, and I’m going to go practise sprinting.

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