As I suspected it might, the Ethics Alarms post challenging readers to propose the best and most ethical way to respond to a lawyer’ self-flagellating declaration that he was a racist and only recently realized it sparked several Comment of the Day-worthy responses. The first is from mermaidmary99, whose comments are almost always spammed by WordPress, including this one. I have no clue why. Here is mermaidmary99’s Comment of the Day on the post, “An Ethics Alarms Challenge: How Would You Respond To This?.”
Wow, thank you for sharing such a heartfelt and personal journey.
In reading your words, I can see you are deeply moved. I’m thankful for your awareness of your experiences.
What I’m not understanding is how what you shared makes you a racist. In fact, that you see there have been injustices to me would show the opposite.
Can you clarify how you specifically are racist? Do you believe Mexicans are lazy? Do you hold that native Americans were savages? That black people are lesser because of skin color? Have you deliberately treated others badly and wished them harm because of their race?
I’m not seeing that in your writing, but if so, then yes, you have acted with prejudice in the past and that’s wrong and good to become aware of.
It sounds more to me by what you’ve written that you’re not racist at all, but have seen that some of what you were thought is not only incorrect, but can cause us to treat others poorly if we hold such beliefs.
Again, I have not seen you act that way, and being raised as you have doesn’t mean you are a racist any more than being told all women are beneath men would make you a woman abuser.
Your conclusion isn’t making sense to me. Let’s continue on the woman analogy.
Women have been treated as inferior in society. They have been denied things purely because they are women. Additionally they have been objectified by men. Men have been taught many wrong things about women as well.
Would you conclude you are “sexist?” Or an abuser of women? Or God forbid if you have ever participated in locker room talk or even heard it, are you a rapist, or an abuser?
Because you recognize injustices passed along by your upbringing and what others believed doesn’t mean YOU endorse or embody those injustices.
I applaud you for the new awareness you have! Many don’t ever reach that point.
However, your conclusions seem illogical and misplaced. A true racist would never admit they were. In fact they would deny, defend, and justify.
I don’t see you in you, friend.
What I see is a person who is questioning their beliefs, and that I see as a good thing. Most don’t want to engage in that process, because often our identities are rooted in our beliefs.
But you are now claiming an identity when you never had those beliefs at all, at least from what I know of you!
If you have held them and no longer do, then it would be more accurate to say you are a former racist. And there are countless ways to start making amends. Especially with a lawyers salary, and lifestyle. You could begin today donating a large portion of your salary to help those you think you have stolen from. I would be happy to point you to some organization doing good work.
If you realize after all you’ve never believed those things and aren’t a racist after all, it still may do your soul good with your new awareness to connect with some people helping blacks and minorities… and heck, why not add women too?
My point is there are many awesome people doing great work advancing equality where it’s still imbalanced.
I’m proud of you for the honest look at your life’s experience. I’d just be cautious to label yourself as something and someone I’ve never known you to be.
10 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “An Ethics Alarms Challenge: How Would You Respond To This?” [Corrected]”
Well done mermaidmary99!!!
I think mermaidmary99’s initial approach is far better than the bull in a china shop initial approach I posted in that thread. That said, if the discussion heads in the direction of why the lawyer is calling themself a racist then some of what I wrote will be useful.
It appears ‘friend’ has bought in to what I consider to be a false dichotomy, that one is either a racist or an anti-racist, and that there is no neutral ground. From that, one who has not been continually anti-racist is therefore a racist. Your argument is that one who has not acted as a racist is not a racist, and I agree with that, but I doubt ‘friend’ would agree.
I would follow up by asking him to make the case that the bar exam is racist.
This is the first I heard of it. Do the proctors of the bar exam have their own version of the Good Ol’ Boys Roundup?
Is the bar exam racist?
In my latest state bar journal, one of the law professors was making the case to re-institute “diploma privilege” (if you get your JD in the state, you can practice in the State (Wisconsin does this)) because minority pass rates for the Bar exam are lower than that of whites. That is what makes it racist.
My response would be along the lines that “law school admissions are likely just as racist, so we should also let people get their license by “reading the law.”
I wonder if the professor would agree with that position, as it would tend to make her position as a law school professor less relevant.
Well done! That is an excellent response and, best of all, it could actually spur that person to think critically, which doesn’t seem to have happened up to now.
Clearly WordPress spams your comments because it is in awe of your prowess.
It depends what you mean by ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘ageist’ etc. In my terms I admit to being all three, and more, and am quite unembarrassed at my biases. I have nearly 70 years of experience of life, some of it direct, much of it at second and third hand. My survival in evolutionary terms is in part because of my ability to absorb my experience and learnings and to use them to influence my responses. After one run in with a sabre tooth tiger my ancestor was irretrievably biased against all of them; and he survived. My 70 years experience is unique to me, and quite different to any of yours. In the terms used by the great philosopher Thomas Bayes, I have my own prior probability functions. And as a social animal, now with grandchildren, I am inevitably passing on elements of my experience to future generations.
Does this mean I shouldn’t serve on a jury, or a recruitment panel? No, in my view, the greater dangers lie with those who are unaware of their biases and therefore ill equiped to consciously counteract them. We are all biased, unless we are totally inexperienced or ignorant.
Counteracting inherent bias is hard but we all have to try. An obvious challenge is to avoid overcompensating.
“It depends what you mean by ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘ageist’ etc.”
Well, that’s exactly right, and we don’t all have the same definition for those terms. Is racism a thought or an action (or both)? I have more than your 70 years of life experience, and I recall when the thought was described as ‘prejudice’ or ‘bias’ and the action was described as ‘racism’, and those definitions have kind of stuck with me. But, as John McWhorter points out in this essay (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/dictionary-definition-racism-has-change/613324/), language usage evolves and we really have no choice but to go along with it.
McWhorter notes that the term ‘racism’ is evolving to a point where the focus is on results, rather than thought or specific actions. In this sense, if we tolerate a situation with disparate results based on race, then we are racists. Not everyone is comfortable wearing that mantle. Complicating the usage is the fact that a fair number of politically active people in kind of a knee-jerk fashion refer to their opponents as racists when it really is just a policy difference at issue. Or, as a former occupant of the White House said, we all are racists, regardless of our actual behavior. The natural (un-woke) reaction to this is, “Not me!”
But, there is no denying that there are disparate results. The causes of those results and individual complicity in producing them are the source of much disagreement, as are the actions undertaken to reduce the disparities. Without a common understanding of the terms, there is not much hope for agreement.
Changing the definition of racism undermines the arguments against it.
One of my longtime Usenet allies made this observation.
– Christopher Charles Morton, dba Deanimator
My initial impression is that this is an excellent way of broaching the topic in a non-confrontational way. The problem is we are in an inherently confrontational time.
I know that if anyone wrote that to me, it would sound like it was dripping with condescension. (However, nothing I have ever written was meant to elicit such a response.) In order to properly respond to the the attorney or other acquaintance who would write such a self-indicting post*, we first need to decide what we are reading. I see three options:
A) Honest self-reflection
B) Cheap copy-pasta
C) Forced allegiance to Big Brother
A) Ms. Mermaid Mary’s approach is undoubtedly appropriate for Option A. Someone honestly reflecting on their experience would likely welcome the praise for their effort. Her feedback, even in its soft-peddled form, may sting a bit, as the author of such a post would contradict the narrative. It is inescapable that the self-indicting post was written in the environment where B & C are viable options. However, someone writing honestly may also be receptive to honestly offered feedback.
B) If someone copied the attorney’s self-indicting post, especially without any attribution to someone other than themselves, then they are not very bright. They will recognize their plagiarism as a cynical ploy for attention and praise, and will project their ill intent on others who don’t offer unconditional praise. Contrary feedback will not be welcome, and indeed will sound patronizing. “Oh look how insightful your [ripped off post is]! You must be so smart to [copy] it”.
Since plagiarism is a blight on society, there is no polite was to approach it. Addressing the content is futile, because the only defense are rationalizations. The person copying it thinks they will get kudos, and will lash out at criticism. The best that can be done is address the plagiarism and ignore the content.
If Option A blends into Option B, the plagiarism might be used to open the door to criticize the contents of the original post. Since the content was not actually written by the poster, it might lessen the sting because you’d be criticizing someone else’s ideas, and their be a hint of honest reflection that gives you an opening. This would apply even more to copied posts that were lightly adapted to the poster’s own circumstances.
C) Forced pledge of allegiance/public confession of sins is the most chilling and troubling option of all. It involves a capitulation of oneself to the ideology, and is always done out of fear. The chilling part is that it can be done voluntarily!
The fear and coercion is a two way street; the pledge is made because one is forced to, or to force others. One can buy into the ideology without any honest reflection (Option A), and become a vocal enthusiastic promoter (unlike Option B, which is done out of laziness and lack of intellectual curiosity). Such persons demand blind loyalty, and will compel others to do so with irrelevant social consequences (ie, non-ethical considerations).
Coerced or coercive indictments are, again, a blight on society (worse than plagiarism!). Praising this behavior as a prelude to criticism will absolutely sound inauthentic. Indeed, it could only be dishonest manipulation (honest manipulation is called persuasion).
The first step is to discern whether the self-indicting post is coerced or coercive. Coerced is the easiest to address, as you have an opening in the involuntary nature of it. Saying you’re proud of them for capitulating will only sting. There is no medicinal value in such pain. Rather you have to remind them of the values they abandoned (and why these values are still important in light of whatever threat motivated their forced confession). The criticism itself will sting, but this pain is necessary. What you can do, however, is offer them your solidarity.
Solidarity is in one sense, a non-ethical consideration. It has no direct relevance to the behavior at hand. However, it contradicts the primary compulsive force: social consequence. It also means putting yourself in the crosshairs, putting your values on the line. It opens yourself to attack by would be coercers. The coerced may even himself become a coercer (Option C is a contagious blight). There is, however, strength in numbers, and many people standing up the abusive few can resist. It takes the enabling virtue of courage to enable such defense of ethical behavior.
Addressing the coercer, the ideological enforcer, is substantially the same as addressing the coerced, except you knowingly open yourself to direct attack. It requires the enabling virtue of courage, as well as the utilitarian assessment of the molehill you are prepared to die on. Proceed with caution.
Ms. Mermaid’s gentle response is certainly appropriate for responding to those who are honestly approaching the topic of racism and disparate impacts on their own lives. However, given the multitude of other potential motivations, including cheap attention, or coerced confession, it could easily be taken as patronizing or dishonest. Ultimately, the response has to be based on the facts on the ground. Her approach seems reasonably tailored to the attorney at hand (had she known him personally), but it can not be taken as a one-sized fits all approach.
*I am calling it a self-indicting “post” because it is the most neutral phrasing I can muster. I wanted to call it a self-indicting “screed” or “manifesto”, but don’t want to poison the well with such loaded terms.