I Was a Moral Coward

by V
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via Roxy!

“Tolerance of intolerance is moral cowardice.”

This is a quote I saw some time ago as a message on someone’s AIM. I actually believe it was D’s! But, I don’t know who the quote originated from. That part isn’t really important, though. What is important is what it says, the message that it sends. And it is true.

Sometimes people feel its okay to give a pass to people who are older or who have spent their lives believing something that isn’t right or moral. Like the way your grandmother might dislike black people. She’s old, that’s how she grew up, it’s understandable. Just let her be.

I had this same attitude before, with my own grandfather. In fact, I even considered it “bonding” to agree with him at times, when he said things or expressed views that were atrocious. Such as, all Hispanics were thieves. My grandfather, for some reason, really disliked Hispanics. He bought into all of the nasty things you’ve ever heard about someone of Hispanic descent, especially if they looked it. I gave him the same benefit of the doubt most people give those like him. He was older, he’d grown up thinking things like that, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and it would just be starting unnecessary arguments to correct him and would do no good in the long run.

However, I went a step further. If you want to bond with someone, especially a person you’re already very close to, you often find common ground with that person and having an agreeable discussion about things. If you can’t find that common ground, or you find yourself in an intolerant discussion with them, instead of steering it away you make a bonding moment out of it. You agree with them, to make them happy and make them feel validated in their views. It puts them on ease and the nice atmosphere of that spreads to you, too. You get carried away. You start to not just agree with them, but also to espouse the same things you’ve heard others say on the subject. This is easy to do, especially with a family member, someone you love and who loves you, and whom you want nothing more than to get along with and for them to approve of you as a person.

So, what changed my mind? Well, one common thing is that most people also feel this behavior hurts no one. It mostly occurs in private. I had a conversation like this with my grandfather about Hispanics one night, shortly after my grandmother had passed away, in the nursing home. A woman who worked at the nursing home was going around with the snack cart and she stopped at our door to offer us something to eat. I don’t remember if we took anything or not. I do remember that I knew the woman. She recognized me first. She knew me by name, remembering me from school.

All the way back in 7th grade, when she used to sit at a lunch table I sat at. She was Hispanic. Since our community is small and predominantly white (we have a very tiny Hispanic population in town), she was interesting to the other students. None of us had yet gone through any foreign language classes (they were not offered to middle schoolers), but this girl spoke fluent Spanish. This made her even more interesting to the other students. And found a niche with them by teaching them a bit of Spanish and the proper way to pronounce certain food items’ names at lunch time. Such as to roll your R’s when you say “burrito” and other such things.

I had not remembered her when I saw her that day in the nursing home, but she remembered me. It took very little, however, for me to remember her. She only had to remind me that she was the girl at the lunch table who was teaching the kids how to speak a few words of Spanish in middle school, when she first moved into town. I was nice to her, I liked her, I spoke with her a bit, but she had to move on to other rooms. She was at work, after all.

However, my grandfather had some things to say when she left. I thought she was out of earshot, I thought she wouldn’t hear, and that she was probably inside of another room. I didn’t think it could possibly hurt her, or anyone else, to go along with what my grandfather was saying. So, I did. Like I usually did when he started talking about things like this.

However, I found out later, when I was leaving that she must have heard us. She did not mention it to me, and she did not come into the room again to tell us off (which we would have deserved, especially me). She let me know in a much more dignified way and a much more pointed way.

When I was leaving the nursing home, I passed a couple of nurses stations. The second one I passed with my parents was close to the front exit and she was standing there talking with some of her co-workers. I smiled to her and waved, saying goodbye. She looked right at me, stared at me, unsmiling, and did not say a word. Her co-workers did the same thing.

I tried another two times, and got the same result. And that was when my suspicions were confirmed. She had definitely heard my conversation with my grandfather. She had been hurt and offended by it, and rightly so. My assumption that nobody else was listening, that she couldn’t hear, was wrong. My assumption that my grandfather’s views were tolerable because he was the one holding those views and because of the circumstances I’d made up that made it tolerable was wrong. My assumption that having discussions like this, whether people could hear or not, would not harm anyone was wrong.

I was embarrassed and ashamed, and rightly so. I decided right then that I would not tolerate intolerance again and that I would definitely not participate in it myself.

Attitudes like this are harmful. You don’t have to beat someone up, or kill someone, or yell at someone, to harm them with your prejudicial words and thoughts. You just have to go along with perpetrating the immorality in order to add to the pain and the problem. To make it possible for views like that to dig their roots in deeper and spread out further. And when someone uses those views as an excuse to not only spread their hate loudly or violently, but to kill or cause the suicide of someone else, then you can know that yes…you contributed to that. Yes, it’s true…you did nothing violent yourself. You did no bullying yourself. But, contributed indirectly to the atmosphere that eventually allowed the bullying and the violence and the death.

You can hide behind circumstance, religion, free speech, or privacy in order to rationalize to yourself and others how it is okay and understandable for you to do it, that you did not hurt anyone and do not condone the harming of others in any form. But, you did and you do, just simply by holding those views and expressing them in verbal form, no matter how nice you try to express it. So, just please remember that the next time you think it might be okay to say something intolerant for any reason.

I had to learn the hard way (and the stupid way) that my verbal actions had a direct effect on other people. I owned that experience, though, and I learned from it. That is all I can do, because I can’t take it back. And, if I ever see that woman again I will certainly apologize to her. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being stupid. But, I can learn from my stupidity and become smarter for it. Everyone should strive to do that with their mistakes. No one wants to think of themselves as intolerant, but if you’re expressing views like this, whether you mean them or not, you are intolerant…or at least you are a moral coward.

I was a moral coward. But, I am not anymore. And that is why it is important to never, ever let something like that slide or to participate in it yourself just because you think it’s probably harmless in the venue it is being condoned.

2 Comments to “I Was a Moral Coward”

  1. As always, I admire you for your honesty.
    It’s very easy to go along with a loved one’s bigotry. I have first hand experience in watching it happen with my family as they talk amongst each other. Now that I”m getting older, I’m getting better at opening my mouth and teling them to shut up. That’s the only way you deal with immorality, and that’s by standing up. I’m glad you know this now. Great piece.

    • Thanks. 🙂 And, yeah, just about everyone alive probably has no trouble looking back into past situations and seeing where they condoned, in one way or another, intolerance and immorality just because it came from a loved one. That’s why I thought it was important, especially in light of everything that’s been going on lately, to write this up.

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