Sunday, October 20, 2019

Is a simple act of kindness enough?

When he stepped onto the subway car, a reader, we'll call him Bart, could tell right away that a fellow passenger was having some issues with mobility. The man sitting in a seat next to one of the doors "shouted out to ask what station the train was stopped at," writes Bart. Bart saw the man held two tall walking canes taped together, the kind of canes typically used by people who had impaired vision.

As the train continued, Bart noticed the same behavior at each stop. At the fifth stop, Bart arrived at his destination. When the doors opened, he let about a half-dozen others leave the train and then exited the doors himself. Only a few steps out of the door he heard the man with two canes tapping them against the door as he tried to exit.

Bart walked back to the train door, held his hand against the door so it wouldn't start to close before the man had fully exited, telling the man what he was doing. The man thanked him.

"If you turn to your left you'll be heading toward the exit," Bart writes that he told the man. The exit was a good 50 yards away from where Bart and the man exited the train. When the man still seemed disoriented, Bart asked him if he wanted to take his arm so Bart could lead him to the station's exit. Again, the man thanked him and took Bart's arm.

They walked slowly and as they did the man told Bart that he was homeless, that his family lived in a different state, and that he didn't want to burden them. But he also told him that he came to this stop on the subway because a local restaurant often offered him a hot meal. He let Bart know that he appreciated his help and asked if he could guide him to the door to the public restroom, which Bart agreed to do.

As he was saying goodbye and had begun walking away, the man said to Bart, "You told me you could help with some money." Bart writes that he knew the man was homeless and in need, but they'd never talked about money. "I told him to have a good day and I walked off."

Bart now wonders if it was wrong to leave a person who seemed so clearly in need without having given him some money. "It was more that I was taken aback after helping him off the train and to the restroom," writes Bart. "I felt like I was being accused of lying to him and I just wanted to leave. His need for money was pretty likely more than any discomfort I felt."

Bart did the right thing by helping the man get off the train. That the man was walking quite close to the train tracks after getting off the train makes his act even more admirable. He has no reason to feel guilty about not giving the man money. If he had that would have been fine, but that he took the time to ensure the man's safety and get him to where he wanted to go was a kind act in and of itself. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglinDo you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, October 13, 2019

If you meet racism at the store, do you call it out?

After a reader I'm calling Kris told me about her experience at her local big box office supply store, I found myself double-checking the store's online site to see if what Kris reported could possibly be true. While having copies made at the store, Kris noticed a display of items intended for use on an office desk. One of the items was one of those wooden blocks about a foot long and four or five inches high that have an inspirational word or quote on them.

But Kris found nothing inspirational about the saying on this block. Instead, there were words designed to capture an ethnic dialect in what presumably was deemed to be an amusing desk accoutrement. The deliberately exaggerated dialogue reminded Kris of the kinds of taunts schoolyard bullies would use against those kids who were somehow different from them.

"I was surprised that any place would carry such an item," writes Kris. Once her copying order was completed, Kris paid for it and left the store. But she couldn't get that sign out of her mind. "What should I have done?"

After Kris told me of her experience, I searched for items with that saying on the office supply store's website. I didn't find the block, but I did find a coffee mug with the same saying on it. A further search online turned up a sign similar to the one Kris had described available at a well-known discount department store. Still further searches found all sorts of imprinted wearables available with the same saying.

Kris was right to be upset. I wrestled with whether or not to repeat the saying in print, but ultimately decided that putting a phrase that struck both Kris and me as insensitive and racist in print was inappropriate.

When she was at the store, Kris could have asked to speak with a manager to express her concern. It's doubtful that the individual store manager has control over the entire chain's inventory, but he or she does have the power to shepherd concerns of customers to those who might do something to address them. But Kris has already left the store.

If she is truly troubled by the sign and she indicates that she is, the right thing to do is to articulate that concern to the corporate offices of the chain. If she snapped a photo with her smartphone of the item, all the better to send it to the company. If that yields no response, she might consider enlisting the help of friends and others equally offended to write the company. If she still receives no response from the company, then Kris might consider taking her concern to the local press.

Calling people out on racist actions is the right thing to do. Calling out the people at companies who make decisions that can be deemed to be racist is also the right thing to do. Having had my attention drawn to these items by Kris, I plan to make some calls myself. There's no excuse for items promoting racist tropes to be peddled to the public nor for the rest of us to condone them. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglinDo you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to