How would you approach these awkward social situations?

Your fiance invites you to visit with his parents

You’re sitting down to a lovely lunch of catfish a l’orange when you notice a whole lot of black people hastening in and out attending to various things. ‘You own slaves?’ you ask, shocked. ‘Sure,’ your man’s parents reassure you. ‘But we’re very enlightened, we view them as family, really.’

Leaving aside the obvious fact that this awkward social situation could only occur prior to the twentieth century (or in Qatar) – what would you have said? ‘Take back this ring and your filthy slave-owning ways, Wayne – I’m off!’ Or ‘Thank you so much for the lunch, Mr and Mrs Legree, but I’ve just remembered I have a hair appointment!’ Or maybe ‘This blancmange is delicious but do you realise slave-owning is morally indefensible? Let me count the ways!’

I’m guessing around 90 percent of (white, it goes without saying) people in those days would have bitten their tongue and kept their opinions for later, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, to switch to a more contemporary setting, let’s say I’m at a social gathering, say, in early November, and someone’ll say, ‘So who’s up for Melbourne Cup Lunch?’ ‘Not me,’ I say, and what I don’t add is, ‘Since I have no intention of participating in the industrial-scale abuse of horses, and neither should you.’ Or someone tells me they’ve bought a puppy over the internet, and I wanna say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just donated to the cause of some brute with a bunch of filthy cages out the back yard stuffed with unloved, abused female dogs who exist only to breed and die.’

So my question is, should I actually say this? Does pointing out an ethical pothole make you a hero, or an annoying dickhead? Does it depend on the scale of the crime?

Ok, so here’s another completely different scenario. Say you offer to share your house with a guy on condition he does three hours’ work a week. Then say he doesn’t. He’s a lovely guy, but overworked and not in great health, so basically he doesn’t get around to it. So now you have to ask him to pay rent. With the awkward (but honest) implication that he’s not fulfilling his side of the bargain. Is there a nice way to do this? What is it?

And finally…let’s say a friend invites you to see a burlesque show featuring drag queens. You think that drag queens are neither funny, sexy, nor interestingly transgressive – basically a bunch of gay guys doing an extended skit on women along the lines of ‘Oooh handbags! Big hair! Cleavage!’. Should you (a) go on a rant, (b) politely decline or (c) examine your own prejudices and values? (If my friend is reading this, she’ll know that I already decided to go on a rant and won’t be offended.)

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  1. I think his makes me glad I’m neither in the market for romantic relationships, nor have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. I’m also glad that I’m older and don’t really care so much anymore if I offend people by being straightforward 🙂

  2. Does pointing out an ethical pothole make you a hero, or an annoying dickhead?

    Maybe both? But sometimes you have to point out the ethical pothole if you want to live with yourself afterwards. To thine own self be true

    1. Choices are never easy. My ex used to say, plant a seed and it may grow. Or not. Meaning, just say something, short, quiet, unobtrusive. It may be ignored at the time but from little things…

  3. Always always depends. On style of connection with the possible offendee, etc. Also, context matters. Not always any particular need to initiate discussion in the moment. Regarding drag queen invite choice: a much easier conundrum. Just option b. We know our tastes and openness by this age.

  4. I think there are a few things to ask oneself before leaping into the breach. One is, do I have a sense of what I intend to accomplish by speaking out? The second is, am I sure I know enough to say what comes immediately to mind? To speak out, I think one needs clear answers to both things. I often remain silent in the face of (what I regard as) injustices, not just because I’m constrained (as I am at work) but because it’s not clear what would be gained by criticizing, and I’m not fully certain I understand the whole context. What I end up doing is adopting a kind of anthropological perspective on things, somewhat detached and observant. This is especially true if I’m unfamiliar to the environment, e.g., in a foreign country.

    In your second and fourth scenarios, I think there’s probably a polite but firm way of putting things, but I think it’s completely fair to say something.

    In your third scenario, I think at a certain point you at least have to ask the guy what contribution he intends to make, or what he has to say for his apparent free-riding.

    Oddly, I think it’s the first case that’s the most difficult, even though the injustice is most egregious. Unless the people involved are just running a criminal enterprise (in which case it wouldn’t be prudent to criticize them), slavery has to be an accepted practice where they are. But then the situation is so alien, it’s hard to know how to respond.

    I’ve been in a somewhat similar scenario: In middle-class households in Pakistan, it’s common to have servants, and common to ill-treat them. Even little children will mistreat servants, ignoring the fact that the servants are their “elders.” I think it’s somewhat pointless to criticize this practice, especially as an outsider. You’ll simply be told to mind your own business, as you obviously have no idea how to treat servants. In a case like this, criticism is more effective if you’re part of the society than if you’re an outsider.

    That said, I have been in situations in my own society where upper middle class people will vent to me about how “much” they’re having to pay their housecleaners, and how “lazy” they are, etc. I’ve been tempted to say something, but restrain myself for two reasons. For one thing, as a former cleaner myself, I know that what I will say will come out in anger. And I also find this mentality so ridiculous that I don’t really know what to say to them except to call them unkind names. But that is more autobiography than ethics. One should probably say something.

    1. That’s really good advice in terms of speaking out. What difference will it make, and do you have your facts straight. It’s the way I wrote the article, obviously, that’s led to a misunderstanding. I don’t know anyone who keeps slaves, thank god, though I’ve occasionally met people who have an oddly aristocratic attitude to the help. To treat cleaners etc as if they’re not equal is regarded as extremely poor taste in Australia, like bullying wait staff. However my expat Irish brother in law had a Thai servant he seemed to regard as invisible, and that felt very odd. Anyway the comparison I was drawing was between slavery and our treatment of animals in the racing and puppy supply industries, not to mention the meat industry. I think it’s as bad as slavery but we don’t recognise that because we think anything that happens to people is just so much more important. So the dilemma for me is, should I point that out (to universal guffaws and odd looks) or shut up. I mostly compromise by dropping in pointed comments and then quickly moving on.

  5. Does pointing out an ethical pothole make you a hero, or an annoying dickhead? Does it depend on the scale of the crime?

    Depends on the ethical pothole and your definition of the word “crime”.

    In current society, virtually everyone has veered deep into “annoying dickhead” territory and are therefore utterly ignored by anyone with a lick of sense (e.g., me).

    I suspect the problem is that everyone believes that their personally mashed up little feelers amount to anything other than a do-gooder whine and they are utterly unable to distinguish any difference between slavery or concentration camps and whether I’ve offended someone by misgendering them or being snotty to an aggressive panhandler. It simply horrifies them, HORRIFIES, I say! either way.


    For myself, when some virtue-signalling PC bellend snottily tries to correct me for whatever dick I’ve stepped on in a given exchange with whoever they’re 2nd or 3rd hand offended for this week, they’ll find me ignoring them and staring intently into the middle distance. When they ask what I’m doing I’ll say something to the effect of “Looking for whoever the fuck asked your opinion.”

    In general, I’d say anyone who cannot distinguish between slavery, wherein someone will stick a pistol in your ear or sell you down the river into Mississippi if you don’t pick cotton fast enough, and economic disadvantage, in which you’re trying to support four kids and your worthless junkie husband on a burger-flipper’s McWages is probably well into annoying dickhead territory.

    What, it’s something you feel strongly about? Then by all means, give her half of yours, or all of it if you’re really wound up, and I’m completely committed to not bothering you about it.

    But don’t presume polishing up the cross you’ve mounted under your own steam and then whining at me about muttering “dumbass” under my breath while failing to join you in your lofty heights is likely to make any headway.

    Some version of that scale seems applicable across the board, I would think.

    Non-Performing House Dude: Is there a nice way to do this? What is it?

    (1) Remind yourself that for this purpose, he is a tenant, not a friend, then sit down with him. Remind him he’s supposed to be doing X hours per week of real work. Ask him if he believes he’s been doing that. Hold his feet to the fire for an honest not-half-assed answer.

    (2) If he DOES actually think he’s been doing the work, he is probably uncorrectable, and you should inform him that y’all seem to have a fundamental difference in what that amounts to and offer to correct it by just charging him rent instead (which everyone can agree on) or him moving on.

    (3) If he agrees that he ISN’T doing the work, ask him what HE would do if he were in YOUR position. With a little prodding, it won’t take long to agree that something else needs to be done. Agree to 15-30 days to see if he corrects it, with the clear understanding that at the end of that time, a re-evaluation of the situation will be required, with a likely outcome of him moving along. Set an appointment date/time for that re-evaluation. If he can’t do it, at least you’ve given him time to make other arrangements.

    (4) Do NOT allow him to sidetrack you with all the reasons his life isn’t allowing him to perform. Frankly, it’s not your problem — financially repairing the parts of his life that aren’t working out isn’t part of your brief. See “slave/not slave” above. At this point, you’re not “giving him a break”. You’re actually supporting him as much as when you find yourself paying off the aggressive panhandler who won’t leave you be till you cough up your daily tithe. I suspect this is not what you had in mind when he moved in.

    Management 101.

    Drag Show:

    I wouldn’t go to one at gunpoint, and for many of the same reasons. I literally have zero against the shows (I have a nephew who’s a star in one in Denver) and do not care that they flaunt away entertaining whoever’s entertained. No moral judgement here.

    But I will say a damned small sample of their one-note camp routine goes a long way. It annoys and bores the bejezus out of me.

    I’ll agree to go to a 2-3 hour drag show if whoever’s dragging (hah!) me there will sit down and listen to 2-3 hours of Donald Trump speeches. He is, after all, another flamboyant, loud, theatrical, over-made-up, one-note whackadoo who thinks he’s adored and that he’s doing something useful instead of self-parody. I’m surprised he isn’t on the Lido’s stage to be honest.

    I’ve found no takers yet.

    1. Funny take, as always. I particularly like the thing about staring off into the middle distance and saying you’re looking for who the hell asked you. I’d never do it, but a girl can fantasise. I’m actually… obscurely… comparing slavery to our treatment of non human animals. I think it’s morally comparable but am afraid to say so in company. As for the dude, I sat down. I said I was having cash flow problems, which is true, and didn’t mention the work issue. Proposed a certain amount of rent, then bargained myself down ten bucks when I saw the glum look look on his face. I’m the wimpiest capitalist that ever was! And yeah, one note. Exactly! So 20th century!

      1. Not so far apart on the animal/people thing as you might think. There’s been more than once that close friends and I have spent time commiserating over a few shots of Irish and coming to the conclusion that there are just some people who should be smacked sharply in the head and fed to the hogs, thereby doing SOMETHING useful with their otherwise negative-balance existence.

        I anticipate widespread argument over who should be included in the pig-fodder, but considerably less disagreement on the general principle, whether they’ll admit it or not.

      2. Well, yeah. Although maybe smacked on the head and buried under nice trees would be gentler. My proscription list varies from day to day. I do think, however, that a remote island should be set aside for boring people. With all mod cons.

  6. Funny take, as always. I particularly like the thing about staring off into the middle distance and saying you’re looking for who the hell asked you. I’d never do it, but a girl can fantasise. I’m actually… obscurely… comparing slavery to our treatment of non human animals.

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