Friday, January 23, 2009

Let it Go

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?


  1. There is some debate about whether bras were really ever burned. And I don't think we won full civil rights, especially at home.

    It is also not just developin countries. My husband and I were outraged by the mendacity and the scams perpetrated against us when we bicycled around France. 4 Euro cokes were outrageous, but we avoided those.

    But a hotel proprietor motioned for us not to lock our bicycles to a light pole in front of the hotel. She took us behind the hotel to a shed with broken glass on the floor and motioned for us to leave the bikes there. We didn't want to leave our bikes there because of the glass and the lack of a place to lock our bikes to, but we were tired and decided to be polite and do as she wished.

    In the morning, we were shocked to find that she had charged us for parking two automobiles, essentially doubling our nightly hotel rate.

    And let's not even mention the restaurant staff that refused to wait on a mixed race couple. Or the smokers who blew smoke at me whenever I pointed at the Salle Non Fumer signs, despite my obvious asthmatic distress.

    My blood pressure is going up, just thinking about the French.

  2. Maybe you're right @badmomgoodmom, and there is an almost universal tendency to rip off foreigners. I can't think of any scams that were attempted on my in Sweden, though, so some people don't do it.

    And I still think it is wrong, no matter where it happens.

  3. I think I agree with you (and I have the same tendency to come up with arguments after the fact and hold entire conversations in my head), but the argument that is springing mind is that, in the absence of an absolute moral code set down by god or the government or someone...don't we have to judge the relative right or wrong of an action based on the damage done to the victim of the scam? Based on that I'd have to argue that getting overcharged for stuff in a developing country because you're a foreigner isn't wrong, but that the mortgage scams were. People selling overpriced train tickets...aren't they breaking laws doing that? I think they would be here.

    On another topic, I got Knuffle Bunny from the library today, it is a hit :)

  4. @Today Wendy- I still love reading Pumpkin Knuffle Bunny. Which is more than I can say for some of her past favorites....

    A lot of philosophers have argued that you don't have to resort to God or government to come up with universal morals. The one I remember best from college is Kant, who spent over a hundred pages of dense prose to derive the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I remember that so well because I remember thinking "I can't believe I waded through that entire book for the GOlden Rule!" But I think it is a pretty good rule, whether you get it from the Bible or from Kant.

    I think the fact that most Western tourists aren't hugely harmed by the scams may mitigate the wrong somewhat, but doesn't remove it. The scammer doesn't actually know how important that money is to the tourist. Some may care, but some probably wouldn't. And if we say that it isn't wrong because I wouldn't miss the money, would it be OK for me to steal $1000 from a very rich man, who wouldn't miss it?

    And I don't really know whether the people selling the marked up train tickets were breaking the laws. We couldn't really figure that out. Maybe it was a "convenience charge"? Regardless, we followed our guidebook's advice and bought directly from the ticket counter!

  5. Yes, I agree that the scammer doesn't know how important money is to a tourist. And definitely stealing money from the rich on the basis that you need it more...wrong.

    What about "tourist prices"? A friend of mine was living in Honolulu and was all excited because he could get a discount at the local golf courses because he was a local rather than a tourist. To me this feels fair, you're absolutely allowed to give discounts to particular groups of people...but it is just reframing the whole overcharging tourists thing.

  6. Anonymous9:39 AM

    I don't know, I think it's human nature to try to see what you can get away with. And morals are most definitely relative to culture - they are not absolute. So it's reasonable to talk about the morals of our own culture, but decidedly more problematic to project those morals onto other cultures that we really can't have access to, not to the depth required to discuss morality anyways.

  7. @Today Wendy- I guess I should make it clear that I don't really have a problem with the fact that tourists pay more than locals. In Thailand, it is pretty common to see signs that say things like "Locals - 38 baht; Tourists - 138 baht" (that's about $1 and $10, respectively). And I didn't mind that people bargaining with us started at a much higher price than they would if they were bargaining with a local. I only object when they use deception to trick people into parting with money.

    @kate w- I tend think some morals are universal. After all, we've got a concept of universal human rights. However, my original point was that either you believe that some things are wrong no matter where they happen, or you believe that culture and circumstances can excuse some behavior that would be inexcusable in others- and if you believe the latter, you have to figure out where to draw the line. I thought this was one of the things the book we'd read was trying to get us to think about. We in the developed world tend to excuse a lot of things in people we see as the "underdogs" in the developing world. Is that right? And if so, how much do we excuse?

  8. Two things occurred to me as I sat in the dark, rocking Pumpkin to sleep:

    1. I really appreciate the different viewpoints/opposing arguments that have been posted. Thank you! This is the discussion I wanted to have at book club, but didn't get to have because I expressed my argument so poorly.

    2. It would be a terrible shame if anyone came across this post and thought that Thailand was a bad place to visit, or that Thais would in general try to cheat them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't think cheating foreigners is an accepted part of Thai culture at all- it is a very warm and welcoming culture, and I think the vast majority of Thais are honest people who are more bothered by the scams that some people attempt to perpetrate than are the foreigners who are targets of the scams.

    I guess that is what I want to understand- I suspect most people read badmomgoodmom's comment about the hotel keeper in France and thought that the hotel keeper was in the wrong. Why don't we think the same about the dishonest touts in Thailand?


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