November 7, 2002
THE INTOLERANCE OF THE TOLERATIONISTS:
Of ethics and ironies
(Rabbi Avi Shafran, Nov. 6, 2002, Jewish World Review)
At least Ann Landers admitted when she was wrong.
And while she may have used a pseudonym, Eppie Lederer claimed only to offer one woman's point of view, no more, no less.
Times, alas, have changed, and along with them The New York Times, whose Sunday Magazine's readers are offered the judgments of "The Ethicist." The bearer of that grandiose title also has a name--Randy Cohen--but his designation is clearly meant to imply gravitas.
Mr. Cohen is generally sensible and very often quite funny. Recently, though, he goofed badly. And, what is worse, he seems unwilling to own up to his error, not an encouraging sign for any honorable man, much less still The Ethicist.
The question in question came from a woman who had closed a deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent. She became offended, though, when the otherwise "courteous and competent" man declined to shake her hand, explaining that touching a woman other than his wife violated his religious code of conduct. The offendee wanted to tear up the contract they had signed, and sought the columnist's advice.
"Sexism is sexism," responded Mr. Cohen, "even when motivated by religious convictions." And, invoking Brown v. Board of Education to argue that "separate is by its very nature unequal," he advised his supplicant to rip away.
One can't object much to her refusing to conduct private business with someone whose religious beliefs she abhors, but that is bigotry.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 7, 2002 8:31 AM
Did Mr. Ethics have any comment about the morality of breaching the contract?
Glenn: That's only money. It's too bad we're not lizards. The agent could have torn off his hand afterwards and given it to her to keep as a momento. Humans, unfortunately, don't grow back limbs.
Tim Blair had a reference to an idiotarian Aussie woman who wrote something about a Muslim who refused to touch her, which she understood as his quite proper refusal to "pollute" himself.
I find people who are "polluted" by interaction with other people pretty dangerous.
However, I also find Cohen to be a trivial, pompous jerk.
Suppose when they were touring this unoccupied house the gentlemen in question had groped her? Why is her ideological opposition to such contact okay but his opposition to a similar violation of his personal space something that frightens you? Is it simply because his beliefs are religiously derived?
Glenn is, of course, a lawyer, a great one, with his eye on the bottom line.
OJ - Thanks for the compliment.
Tom - I was merely pointing out that there was more than one moral/ethical dilemma here: the question of dealing with someone who you believe to be sexist and the question of breaking a promise. While The Ethicist's advice is defensible, he should acknowledge that he's advocating one evil to combat another.
That's an ideological objection? A mere matter of opinion?
I don't agree.
And there is this other difference. Person A may welcome or be repelled by a groping from Person B. That's a matter of personal choice. But when Person A is polluted by Class of Persons B, that's bigotry.
A chooses not to be touched by B--justified
B chooses not to be touched by A--bigotry?
That wasn't the situation I set up.
You are defending separate drinking fountains, you know. I remember them.
Glenn: I agree, and legally money is something to argue about while hurt feelings are not. Which is a logically objective stance. But Cohen is a feel-good, bed wetting, subjectivist, moral slime mold who could not tell right from wrong if Beezelbub latched onto his sorry ass with a set of red hot pincers. So that is why he can toss off money, or any other objective way of measuring "injury" so easily.
I'd defend them in one's private life, though not in public conveniences.
Case in point about Cohen cum-lower life form trying to pretend that there is no right or wrong, just shades of gray:
Take the first question on tatoo art commissions. Cohen cites Lehrer on von Braun:
" ''Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."
and then "rolls his eyes" at Leni Riefenstahl's amorality. Hey Cohen, why not roll your eyes at Himmler while your googling the rest of the Nazi's gassing your kindred? Try a simple condemnation once in a long while and consider reading Deuteronomy 28 while he is at it, as his forefathers read it before him.
I know next to nothing about Orthodox Judaism, but it didn't sound to me like the agent's refusal to shake her hand was based in a fear of "polluting" himself. Maybe touching another woman is seen as disrespectful to his wife, maybe drawing the line at even "innocent" touching ensures that there is no temptation to take it further, etc. I may think it's a silly rule, but I wouldn't call it bigotry. A lot of people would be uncomfortable kissing someone other than their wife, even in a friendly greeting - would that make them bigots? It's just a matter of degree.
And if he is married, it seems quite unlikely that he is repulsed by women as a class.
I really don't see a parallel between this situation and the example you gave.
Offering real estate is not a private activity. It is, and should be illegal, to offer real estate only to certain classes.
Jews ought to be pretty sensitive to this, as the Jewish exclusionary covenants were common in this country as recently as the '60s.
I am not too concerned about the man's motive. Alexander Graham Bell used to advise his children, never impute motives.
All I see is effect: he will shake the hand of one class, not another.
That's how I define bigotry.
The agent obviously had no problem doing business with, or offering real estate to, a woman - they had closed the deal and she described him as "courteous".
Recognizing that there are differences between men and women is not bigotry. "A married man shall not have physical contact with a woman who is not his wife" is a far cry from "women are inferior" or "women are unclean".
If I'm at a gym and refuse to take a shower if a woman enters the locker room does that make me a bigot? If you walked into a women's locker room and they asked you to leave would they be bigots? Sometimes it's reasonable to treat men and women differently.
I really don't see anything in his actions that necessarily implies disrespect, let alone bigotry.