Some of my most loved relatives are sexists and racists. Now what?

When I was growing up in Rome I went to a high school whose student and teaching bodies leaned heavily toward the left of the political spectrum. The outside wall still bore the mark of police bullets fired during an anti-Vietnam student protest that took place a couple of years before I began attending the school. I was actually considered a moderate by my schoolmates, and only very occasionally participated in street demonstrations, during one of which I saw some of my friends being charged and beaten by the police.

By contrast, my adoptive grandfather — with whom I grew up — was clearly on the conservative side of things, religiously buying “Il Tempo” newspaper, which positioned itself on the center-right of things. Far worse was my father, who voted for the Movimento Sociale Italiano, essentially the immediate descendant of the Fascist party (which in Italy is, to this day, illegal to reconstitute). He and my mother had lived in Africa for a while (I was born in Liberia), and they frequently made racist jokes about the locals with whom they had interacted.

Many years later, that is, now, I still go back to Rome to visit my family. My grandparents and parents are gone, but I have brothers, a sister, and a number of other close relatives. Many are either apolitical (a position that I consider oxymoronic) or, again, leaning Right. And I have repeatedly heard several of them articulate sexist or racist remarks, particularly now that the West is experiencing the #metoo movement, and especially given the new wave of immigrants in Italy, most of whom come from northern Africa and the Middle East (earlier waves came from eastern Europe, and they too triggered a good measure of ethnic “jocularity” among my relatives, apparently oblivious to the long history of Italian emigration to other countries).

And yet, I love these people. More to the point, these are good people. They have not just been good to me personally, but they are generous and well intentioned in general. Take, again, my grandfather, who was one of the sweetest, gentlest, and most honorable individuals I’ve ever met. Some of my living relatives, whom I will of course not identify by way of our specific relation, are also both pleasant and fundamentally good. They have demonstrated that to me in a myriad ways, over several years or decades.

And yet, should I not be upset by their racism and sexism? Should I not stand up for civil liberty and justice, arguing with them whenever they utter their cringeworthy comments, or even, if the offense is sufficiently egregious, estrange myself, cutting them off and seeking better company? Especially in the last few years — since I have embraced Stoicism as my personal philosophy of life — I have made a concerted effort to improve myself and to contribute, however modestly, to the betterment of the human cosmopolis. Wouldn’t it be good to begin with some house cleaning? After all, Epictetus gave the following advice:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

Where “non-philosophers” here doesn’t mean professional academics, but anyone who has not decided to live life virtuously. Pace Epictetus, and still well within the principles of my chosen philosophy, I don’t think so. On the contrary, several of my relatives afford me a number of opportunities that I make a concerted effort to take, and which I’ll endeavor to spell out for common benefit in the following.

I. Teach them, or put up with them (but don’t yell at them!)

Nowadays, especially on social media, by far the most common reaction I see whenever someone encounters an opinion they object to is outrage. There is a lot of “virtue signaling” (i.e., I am shouting at you because I’m better than you), insulting (since, as we all know, insults is how people change their mind!), and shaming. But here is a completely different suggestion, from Marcus Aurelius:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations VIII.59)

I’m only going to slightly tweak Marcus’ advice here, and remind us all that the most likely proportion between those two activities will be 10% teaching and 90% bearing. And that’s being optimistic. Accordingly, I occasionally do engage my relatives when they make sexist or racist utterances. But I try to do it infrequently, indirectly (i.e., not by shouting “racist!” to their face), and with no expectation that they will suddenly see the light. People get easily tired of being preached to, do not respond well to being belittled or negatively labeled, and almost never see the force of an argument and instantly pivot away from their former position. That’s not to say that progress cannot be made, but it requires patience and subtlety, and the success rate, empirically speaking, isn’t very high.

II. Take people for what they are, not what you’d like them to be

I noticed that a lot of people these days begin complaints about others with something like “I can’t believe that…,” usually followed by the observation that this or that person is sexist, racist, pro-Trump, and so forth. But why, exactly, can we not believe what is, after all, very common, and moreover has been common since the beginning of recorded human history?

“‘A cucumber is bitter.’ Throw it away. ‘There are briars in the road.’ Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, ‘And why were such things made in the world?’” (Meditations VIII.50)

People are what people are. Some of them good and decent, others a bit less so. More often, people are a complicated mix, like my above mentioned relatives. Again I lay a good part of the blame on social media for making our interactions with others more anonymous, which makes it easier to dehumanize them. We feel entitled to make fun not just of Trump (it’s always okay, in my book, to make fun of the powerful), but of the multitudes that support him. In doing so we forget that those people could just as easily be our brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. And in a number of cases they actually are! Far better, and more just, to remind ourselves that people are often misguided and unwise, but rarely, if ever, “evil.” And moreover, that we vehemently object when they refer to an entire class of individuals (women, minorities, ethnic or religious groups) as if those were homogeneous entities, instead of complex and heterogeneous ensembles only loosely held together by whatever mark (gender, “race,” religion, etc.) we happen to apply to them.

III. Keep your moral compass steady nonetheless

Another notion that seems pervasive, especially on social media, is that it is imperative to criticize and correct others, because if we don’t do it, and forcefully, then we ourselves are complicit in whatever horror du jour.

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

As Marcus says, other people can’t “fix” on us what is ugly, because we are in charge of our own opinions, judgments, and values. Indeed, for a Stoic those are the only things we are in charge of, and we definitely do not control other people’s opinions, judgments, and values. To internalize this means flipping things around: instead of being so concerned with what others think, why don’t we begin by checking the status of our own virtue? It’s hard for me to avoid feeling smug and morally superior to my relatives, who still think it is okay to engage in sexist and racist thoughts and utterances — though they very rarely actually act on them. But it would be better for me to constantly remember that I am “privileged” in comparison to them. I am the only member of my family who has gotten to college, and then to graduate school. I am also one of only two members of our family’s current generation to have lived abroad, thereby having been exposed to a variety of eye-opening people and experiences. And I am still benefiting from the kindness and moral support that my grandfather gave me when I was growing up. So I have a number of advantages over many of my relatives, and if I didn’t have slightly more open views about a range of issues my lack of wisdom would be significantly less excusable than theirs.

Maybe you’ll think that I’m simply a coward who’d rather not engage in heated political discussions at the dinner table. Or that I apply double standards to my family as distinct from the rest of the world. But pause for a moment and truly ask yourself whether we wouldn’t all be in a better position if instead of yelling and shaming we decided to teach and tolerate. That decision is entirely up to us.

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