Topic: Society

The Ethics of Confrontation
(8/28/2005)

To many Americans, including some who visit my e-mail In Box, avoiding confrontations is the wisest, safest, and best course. In reality, it is frequently none of these. Confrontations can be an ethical duty.

I was reminded of this as the result of an unexpected experience recently as I took my son to an afternoon baseball game at Washington’s RFK Stadium. It was fifteen minutes before the start of the contest between the Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds, so I paid my ten dollar parking fee and began looking for a space in the already crowded stadium parking lot. The most convenient empty space I encountered was occupied by two guys sitting in lawn chairs and sipping beer, so I asked if they were saving the space for someone.

“Just us!” one of them said.

“Well, I’m going to park here. Would you please move?” I asked.

“We’re tailgating,” the other said. “Go park in one of the other spaces.” He did not say this in a polite and friendly fashion.

“Look, guys, your ten dollars buys you one space, not two. I’m going to park here.”

They didn’t budge, but looked away and continued sipping their beers.

“We paid twenty dollars for two spaces.”

Fine: now they were lying to me. “Somehow, I doubt that,” I said. “Are you going to move?”

“Nope!” Now they both stared at me defiantly. A third friend joined them. A big friend.

To make a long confrontation short, I alerted the parking lot attendants, who confirmed that these characters had no business taking up the two spaces and who made my antagonists clear the space. They did so as slowly as possible, cursing me all the while.

“Look! There are some other people sitting in spaces over there!” one pointed out sarcastically. “Are you going to make them move too?” “Aha!” I thought. A classic variation on the “everybody does it” rationalization…the “It’s not fair for me to be punished for what other people get away with!” argument.

“No,” I replied. “Someone else can make them move. I’m just making you move.”

There were indeed other spaces that I could have parked in with minimal inconvenience. I might have even done that if the “tail-gaters” had said something like, “Look, we’re almost finished here and the game is about to start. We’d really appreciate it if you’d park over there so we don’t have to clear all this stuff away right this minute.” But that wasn’t their attitude at all. They were breaking the rules and being defiant and self-righteous about it, as if anyone questioning their right to take up two spaces was being unreasonable. Obviously their tactic had worked: the space was close to the stadium and was surrounded by parked cars. Dozens of cars must have passed the space by. The tail-gaters were counting on the fact that people would prefer to avoid a confrontation rather than to make them do the right thing.

And this is why we all have an ethical obligation to confront bullies, jerks, and people who take up two spaces in parking lots. We have the obligation on behalf of all the people, many of them elderly, weak or shy who will be inconvenienced and intimidated, not just that day but in the future. When unethical people become convinced that bad conduct works to their advantage, and that the people who object won’t have the courage or the conviction or the time to make them stop it, other people will suffer.

It’s a minor incident but a major principle, and I wanted to make sure that my 10 year-old son understood it and absorbed it. When people knowingly behave unethically and get away with it, they will keep behaving that way. If others see that such conduct works, they might start behaving that way too. From motorcyclists revving their engines in residential areas to shoppers exceeding the maximum number of items in the express check-out lane; from surly service attendants to those who cut into queues; from kids who project laser pointers onto movie screens to the people who light up cigarettes on elevators; from drivers who throw litter out their car window to travelers who can’t be bothered to flush the airport toilets, if nobody objects to their knowing misconduct–a demonstration of disrespect for everyone else in their vicinity–then the unethical and inappropriate behavior will become acceptable…because it has been accepted. And the world will become a little courser, dirtier, ruder, and unpleasant.

It is up to every one of us to speak up, tell the jerks, boors and bullies of the world to stop, and report them when they don’t. Confronting unethical conduct is unpleasant and occasionally scary, but somebody has to do it.

You. Me. All of us.

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