Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are we morally obligated to keep other people's secrets?

The other day I found a phone that someone left behind in our local dog park. I looked through the contacts, called “Mom” to tell her that I found her child’s phone and then texted someone listed as “grlfrnd.” It was she who eventually picked up the phone, and the owner of the phone called me on his phone as well. The whole thing took about two hours and Grlfrnd came to my house to get the phone. Everyone was very nice. But there was one question that kept going through my head: do I look at the pictures?

I’m a curious guy. Nosy, at times, and I’m certainly as voyeuristic as the next person. So I have someone’s phone and I was curious what secrets it held. But I also knew that in doing so, I would be violating someone’s privacy. And what if I found something I shouldn’t. In addition to the variety of things I didn’t want to see based on personal taste, I could also imagine the media-fueled stories of child porn, and the obligation to go to the police if I found some of that, so was I willing to open the Pandora’s Box?

People will respond by saying that you shouldn’t put something on a phone that you don’t want others to see, and this is good advice. But this is a strategy not a moral position. The question I was asking myself was instead about my own ethical behavior. Just because I was curious – perhaps pruriently so – does that mean it’s morally OK to look?

As always, my questions dovetailed with other things, most particularly, a column by the ethicist in the New York Times magazine. The column, for those of you who don’t know, is a pseudo-intellectual Dear Abbey written by Randy Cohen. People write in with moral dilemmas, and Cohen offers his advice. He is not a philosopher, does not appeal to theory all that often, but it’s a fun read, mostly because I, like many other readers, am curious if his answers agree with mine. They do a fair amount of the time.

So, an orthodox Jewish woman writes in to ask whether she should “out” a guy she went on a date with for being transgender.

So, an orthodox Jewish woman writes in to ask whether she should “out” a guy she went on a date with for being transgender. They had a nice time, she googled him, found out that he was born female, but she also indicates that she has special research skills and found out about him in ways others would not be able to. Presumably, his identity would stay a secret if she didn’t tell anyone. She broke it off with him, knows he dates other women in the community, and wants to know whether she should “urge” the rabbi to tell others. Cohen’s response is that while she can certainly tell her friends in everyday conversation, she shouldn’t tell the rabbi.

Thus we have the question: is she obligated to keep his secret? Now, we’re not sure what special research skills she has, and if she somehow accessed private medical records then she shouldn’t tell – accessing the records would itself be breaking the law, likely immoral, and passing on the information would be so as well. But let’s assume she found the information via public records. What then? Again, Cohen’s answer seems fair at first.

However, Cohen misses at least one point: in a tight-knit community like an orthodox Jewish community, there are few secrets. Telling one person something is, in essence, telling everybody. Yes, Jewish communities have prohibitions against gossip, but we all know how well those work in any group. So, we have to assume that there is no real distinction between telling one person and telling the rabbi, and thus Cohen’s solution falls apart. She either tells no one, or she tells everyone.

Jos, on the blog Feministing, has another objection. She writes that outing a transgender person often leads to violence and thus telling people is subjecting the man to great personal risk. This is an interesting objection because, at least in part, it offers a criterion: we do not tell people’s secrets when it could be dangerous to do so. But Jos too misses the point: for the orthodox woman, being transgender is a profound moral wrong – it is unnatural – and thus people need to be “warned.” Would Jos make the same claim if the woman found out he was a convicted child molester?

That last sentence will likely make Jos's head explode.She will likely claim that I am comparing being transgender to molesting children.

That last sentence will likely make Jos's head explode.She will likely claim that I am comparing being transgender to molesting children. (I am assuming from the context that Jos is female, but the profile link is broken so I may be incorrect about this.) I am not. I personally do not find anything morally wrong about being transgender, I don’t think there are victims involved, and I don’t think that anyone has an obligation to tell partners that they were of a physically different sex at some point unless, perhaps, there is a committed relationship involved. Furthermore, the latter, for me, has more to do with intimacy and being a part of a joint project, rather than the “trans panic” that Jos warns of or the distaste of people who are offended by fluid sexualities.

The point is that for many conservative people, being transgender is like being a child molester in that the person needs to be protected against. Perhaps the act is immoral, perhaps it is unnatural; it is not for me to say in this blog for these people. But since the woman thinks this, and truly honestly thinks this, the objection that it might be dangerous to the “perpetrator” doesn’t hold moral weight in just the same way that arguing against outing a child molester because it might be dangerous to the child molester doesn’t hold any moral weight. Protecting children comes first, and, for the orthodox woman, presumably, protecting the community comes first.

Jos might argue, of course, that the orthodox woman is just wrong, that there is nothing wrong or dangerous about being transgender and thus the woman, by telling of the man’s past, is committing a dangerous act based on false assumptions. Holding such a critique of orthodox Judaism would certainly be within someone’s rights, but it still doesn’t solve the problem at hand. That orthodox Jews need to be educated about real morality and the way their religion distorts justice and reality is certainly a common opinion held by those on the left and the right alike, but it isn’t going to convince any orthodox Jews. It isn’t going to convince the woman who wrote it. Were Cohen to suggest it, his answer would have been akin to the statement: “this is a moral dilemma only because your religion is wrong and bad. Leave it and you won’t have this problem anymore.” I hope everyone can see why this is not a viable response. (For a wonderful and sympathetic documentary about growing up gay in the Orthodox community see: Trembling before G-d).

As a side note, I wonder if the many gay activists who encourage, for political reasons, outing closeted people, feel the same way about transgender folks. Do they think that the orthodox woman has a moral obligation to tell her rabbi and community, not to protect the community but to force the hand of the transgender person? Consistency would suggest that such activists would have to claim just this.

In short, there are compelling reasons to tell and not to tell, some of which I would agree with, some of which I wouldn't. In the end, though, the issue is that the transgender man in question wants his secrets kept just as the person whose phone I found presumably wants his photos to remain private. Am I morally obligated to refrain from looking at the photos? If I do look, am I obligated to keep what I found to myself (even if there is nothing illegal or immoral)? Is the fact that a person desires their secret to remain a secret enough to compel the rest of us not to tell it?  This was a long entry. What's your opinion? And was Cohen or Jos right? Or neither? What would you suggest?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Can "American" be an ethnic term?

Years ago, my friend Mike O’Connor told me that what made us a unified American culture is that we “all know who Michael Jordon is, and we have all eaten Big Macs.” The quote stuck with me, especially as I moved to different regions seeking a tenure track position. (Mike, it should not be surprising, ended up getting a Ph.D. in American Studies.) The quote came back to me yet again when I found this video of a woman in a German grocery store coming upon an “America Ethnic Foods” section.

The selections should not be too surprising: there are marshmallows and baking mixes (I used to bring these products as gifts to Austrian friends who had visited America, since they did not exist in their country); Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Campbell’s Soup, Hellman’s Mayonnaise (known as “Best Foods west of the Rockies, by the way), and others. I won’t ruin the whole video.

The video does bring up the question of whether American can be seen as an ethnicity or just a conglomeration of people with differing ethnicities. There are philosophical reasons to suggest the latter. Being an American (citizen) is a purely political distinction. A person who is naturalized is as much of an American the moment they become a citizen as someone whose family came to the new world on the Mayflower. A child of any parents, if born on American soil, is considered an American. So, history, culture, loyalties, political perspective, and other such things are irrelevant to the categorization. Yet, at the same time, we do want to think that there is something akin to American culture. I think we would feel hollow without it. But what would it be? Is it just the standard notion that we are all participating in the great American experiment? Or, perhaps, it is that which we absorb by living within the borders, regardless of which part of the border we live in.

If Mike was right – if this video is right – that American ethnicity is somehow defined by its consumer culture, then we encounter an even deeper connection to capitalism than those who claim that it is just democracy that goes hand-in-hand with free-markets. (I do not claim this postulate is true, by the way, just that some people claim it.) It suggests that capitalism is itself a culture and an ethnicity – a heritage in itself.


I found an interesting definition for “ethnic” on “Relating to a people not Christian or Jewish.” That seems odd to me, although it does recall Fraser Crane, on Cheers, declaring that he wished he had an ethnicity.

Someone on clearly agrees with, and defines ethnicity as “Something white people should never try to relate to.”

Clearly it is a loaded and political term.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blog Hiatus almost over -- here is an article about WHY? from Humanities Magazine

Greetings all. As you may have noticed, I have taken the month off to exhale and recharge. I was traveling and participating in a wonderful NEH institute on the history of political economy at Duke University. But the blog should be up and running starting next week -- once I turn my attention away from Sunday's episode of Why? Do tune in. Paul Sum returns to discuss his year-long research trip to Romania. His work focuses on analyzing America's efforts to aid that country's emerging democracy. Paul's episode before the trip can be found here.

In the meantime, here is a nice piece on Why? that appeared in the NEH magazine, Humanities. It's IPPL's and Why?'s first national exposure. We are, as you can imagine, thrilled.