I have a hard time forgetting about arguments that I feel like I've lost. I still remember a discussion in my second year Social Sciences course in college. We were discussing Hobbes and whether people will ever correct an injustice without violence. I argued that the American civil rights movement proved they would. A guy in my class, who clearly knew more about the detailed history of that movement than I did, rebutted that, saying that there was evidence that the threat of violence from one of the student groups was what moved white America to start to redress the wrongs we'd committed against blacks, and that without that threat Martin Luther King's non-violent campaign would not have been successful.
I had no answer for him at the time, but much later it occurred to me that perhaps the women's rights movement would have been a better example. I don't think women threatened anything more violent than the burning of bras.
This argument took place in a class outside of my major almost 17 years ago. But I still remember it, and the counter-argument I should have made. I wonder if this would make my professor happy to know, or if he'd just laugh?
I recognize the inability to just let an argument go as the character flaw that it is, and do my best not to track people down days or weeks after a discussion has ended with my "Yes, but..." arguments.
However, I still have a hard time letting go. Thankfully, I now have a blog and can indulge myself by posting my one-sided arguments here. So, I am going to see if I can purge a discussion we had last night at book club from my mind.
We were discussing The White Tiger, the Man Booker prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga. The book is set in India and essentially starts with the narrator telling you that he murdered his master, and this is how he broke out of being a servant. I think one of the things the book is trying to get us to do is to examine our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, and also to illuminate the rich world tendency to excuse in developing countries behavior that we would consider immoral if it occurred in our own countries.
We were talking this, and I mentioned the fact that many locals in developing Asian countries (I've never been to developing countries elsewhere, so I can't say if they are the same- I suspect they are) will run scams that attempt to extract the maximum amount of money from visitors from richer countries. I'm not talking about the fact that they undoubtedly start any bargaining session at a much higher price if you are a tourist. I'm talking about things like kitting someone out to look as much as possible like an official from a governmental tourist office, and then positioning that person in front of train ticket counters to attempt to convince tourists to buy train tickets at an extravagant markup.
I think I made my point very poorly last night, because everyone argued back that rip offs and scams happen here in the US, too. Of course they do, that wasn't really my point. My point was that when they happen here, we think they are wrong and unethical. So shouldn't we consider such scams wrong and unethical when perpetrated in Thailand or China? If it was not OK for some mortgage brokers to profit from some peoples' lack of understanding of financial instruments by selling them terrible mortgages, why is it OK for someone in Thailand to take advantage of a tourist's lack of understanding of the Thai railway system and profit by selling them marked-up tickets? I would argue that both behaviors are wrong. The latter may be far more understandable, and cause far less harm, but it is still wrong.
When I was traveling in Asia, I generally wasn't too disturbed by the scams we saw happening, and that were attempted on us. We know of at least one time when we were blatantly overcharged for a taxi ride. I accidentally bought a $5 diet Coke in China. We were no doubt ripped off so well at times that we never knew it happened. The fact that the sums of money were relatively small for us and relatively huge for the people benefiting from the scam mitigates the impact, but I don't think it changes the fundamental ethics- it is wrong to cheat people, no matter where you live. If it is not, where do we draw the line? We'd probably all agree that it was wrong for the protagonist of The White Tiger to kill his master. But what about the thousands of situations in between?