I was the youngest child in a family of three and the only son; my two sisters were one year apart but a decade older than me. When they were young, my father punished them by taking a belt to them. By the time I came around, he had changed his ways. I was almost always treated with kid gloves; he would go out of his way to ensure that he and I never had the permanent falling out that he had with his own father. I also had more opportunities than my sisters, as my parents became more financially stable, and my sisters moved away from home.
My eldest sister was always envious, and as the years went by, she sabotaged me by saying things about me that weren’t true. My parents were too conscientious, or passive, to take sides and wanted me to make amends with her, even though I was the one being gaslit. After my mother died, I saw in her journal an entry in which she expressed puzzlement over why my sister treated me so badly (something she never admitted to me while she was alive).
The final act came to my attention several years ago. There was some expense related to my father that my sister didn’t want to pay and wanted him to pay. I happened to be at his house when the item arrived, and I signed for it. Shortly afterward, my sister emailed me to ask if I had the bill of lading. I dutifully scanned it and sent it back to her without any text in the body of the email. A few days later, he died. In those final days, he seemed distant, as if he were nursing a hurt.
After his death, I went through his email to cancel subscriptions and services in his name and came across an email that my sister sent to him and my other sister but not to me. It was a forged version of the email that I sent to her with the bill of lading, in which she wrote, pretending to be me, “Can you get Dad to pay this?” She replied, as if she were the hero, “I already paid it.”
This was like a knife through my heart. I would never have quibbled over a bill nor have written about him in that manner. In my mind, he died thinking that I had, in this small way, turned my back on him. I also was appalled to think that my sister so treacherously connived to put a final wedge between us.
I’ve thought about this nearly every day for years, but I have never confronted my sister about it — have never even let on that I found the forged email. After it happened, I told my other sister what happened and how much it hurt me. Her reply was: “So what? You’re still going to get your share of the inheritance.” Which wasn’t my point at all.
I’ve vacillated between keeping this to myself in order to reveal what I know at some opportune moment or letting her off the hook altogether and continuing to carry this burden. (I should mention that we live far apart and speak once a year, if that.) Is it better to tell her that I know what she did or to take this to my grave? Name Withheld
There’s a kind of malevolence that looms large precisely because its purview is so paltry. You imagine your sister painstakingly concocting her deception, and for what? A tiny dig at an indulged younger brother? A bank robber has, we may surmise, allowed his greed to overcome his decency; we can wonder whether your stealthy underminer has any decency at all.
Nothing can be done, needless to say, to reset your relationship with your father and correct the false light in which you were portrayed. The relationships you can do something about are with the living. But your relationship with your sister, it’s clear, isn’t one you want to repair. So what else might you secure by confronting her?
As every village storyteller and every Hollywood screenwriter knows, people do enjoy seeing the wicked suffer.
Here’s a simple moral idea: We’re entitled, absent special considerations, to feel and to express resentment when we are wronged. Indeed, you aren’t treating people as responsible for their acts if you don’t respond to them with the appropriate “reactive attitudes,” as the philosopher Peter Strawson called feelings like resentment. Your elder sisters, you note, grew up without the financial stability you enjoyed and experienced the kind of corporal punishment that was once the norm and that you were fortunately spared. Yet these historically commonplace circumstances aren’t known to turn people into devious schemers. So your resentment is merited. If your aim is simply, as we say, to get it off your chest, there’s no moral reason not to do so.
But you may also wish to tell her because you want to shame her or otherwise cause her distress. Some people think that taking satisfaction in other people’s suffering is always wrong, whatever they’ve done. This position is airily remote from the affective texture of moral life, from the motivating complex of sentiments — whether admiration or abhorrence — that certain actions can produce.
The simple truth is that, as every village storyteller and every Hollywood screenwriter knows, people do enjoy seeing the wicked suffer, particularly if the wickedness has been directed at them or those they care about. The retributive idea that wrongdoing will be punished is what makes Christian and Muslim ideas of hell — and Hindu ideas about karma — morally plausible. (“There’s a special place in hell … ” we like to say about those with habits that especially rile us.) Perhaps if you confronted your sister, she would pay some emotional cost for her misdeed. I wouldn’t condemn you for taking comfort from her discomfiture.
Are you reading too much into your father’s demeanor toward you, in the light of your later knowledge? Alas, you’ll never know: That’s part of the injustice that rankles you. Your sister’s mischief was on the smallest of scales; its effect — given that it daily preys on your mind — is not. Your reticence, in sum, is misjudged. For you, these bygones are anything but bygone; your decision to brood silently on an injury done to you only magnifies that injury.
A family member of mine has quite curly hair. She is a white woman and often wears her blond hair in box braids that she does herself. Whenever I see this hairstyle on her, it makes me cringe.
I’ve mentioned to her and to other family members that I feel uncomfortable with her wearing her hair like that, but everyone just brushes it off. I try to explain that it feels very political and a bit racist, but this is quickly dismissed.
Is it racist for her, as a white woman, to wear box braids? Should I do anything about it? If it is racist, how do I explain why she shouldn’t wear her hair like that? Name Withheld
I can well believe that it isn’t a good look for her. Box braids, of the kind Janet Jackson popularized, aren’t something everyone can pull off. But that’s not because any group owns it. Various kinds of close-to-the-scalp braiding could be found, in ancient times, among the vestal virgins of imperial Rome just as it could among the Egyptians and certain peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. There’s no reason to think your ringleted relative’s coiffure arises from or conveys disrespect. Forms of adornment and their social significance change by the era, the decade, the season. And treating a fashion faux pas as a racial affront isn’t a good look for the rest of us.
To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”
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Should I Tell Her I Know? appeared first on New York Times.