How I responded to a racist comment

Note: I originally sent this out as part of a newsletter. It got such a positive response that I decided to share it here as well.

As racist remarks go, this one was fairly mild.

I was driving in a car with an older family member. (I’m going to call him “Joe” for the purposes of this post.) Over the car radio came the news that “Uncle Ben’s” rice would be changing its name to “Ben’s Original” because of racist associations with the original name and logo design.  

Out of nowhere, Joe got really agitated. There was nothing wrong with the name “Uncle Ben’s,” he insisted. No one cared about the name. No one was asking for the name to be changed. I started to protest that, yes, actually, there was a lot of support to change the name. Growing more and more agitated, he answered that those people need to find better things to do than protest about names. And anyway, “giving in” to this kind of request is only “pouring oil on the fire.”

My first thought was, really? You don’t understand why the name “Uncle Ben’s” is racist?

And my second thought was, why do you care so much about how a multi-million dollar food company markets their products?

So while I was disturbed by Joe’s reaction I was also really perplexed by it. There was nothing in any of our previous conversations to hint at these views.

Now I faced a choice. I was also starting to get agitated. (And there was nowhere to go, I was a passenger in his car.) Do I avoid conflict by using one of the many “conflict avoidance” tactics I have mastered? I could easily remain silent, change the subject, or make some soothing remark about “agreeing to disagree.” Or do I continue this uncomfortable conversation and risk damaging my relationship with Joe? 

I made a quick calculation. I knew I was an important person in his life. I knew he would listen to me. More importantly, despite his bizarre and out-of-proportion reaction to the name change, I knew he was a good person and someone who tries to do the right thing.

And so I explained why I thought the name had to change. I told him about the racist history of whites calling black men “Uncle” to avoid using the honorific “Mr.” I said that the label design harked back to a time when black men could get only low-paying jobs, and that we didn’t need a visual reminder of those times.  

Gradually the tension between us diffused. Joe listened to me. I would like to tell you that I changed his mind, but honestly I don’t know if I did. What I do know is that I felt better in speaking up than I would have in remaining silent.

What happened the last time you heard a racist comment?

About the image: © 2020 Mars Foods & Affiliates.

Black Lives Matter

Something new – Anti-racist reading group

Like many of you, I’ve been outraged and saddened by the recent violence against people of colour, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

One of the messages I keep hearing from racialized communities is that white people have work to do, and that work begins with self-examination. This could mean recognizing one’s own unconscious biases or trying to understand how white privilege contributes to sustaining racism.

This work is particularly important to me as a mediator in a multicultural society. Many of the conflicts I’m brought into have a racial component.

After reflecting on how I might be able to contribute and to do some of this work myself, I decided to organize and facilitate a group to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, a book that appears on many anti-racism reading lists.

My plan is for us to meet on line once a week for about an hour to read and discuss one chapter.

Rather than charge a fee to join the group, I’m asking participants who are able to make a contribution to a non-profit working to improve the lives of black or indigenous Canadians. (For example, Black Lives Matter Canada, Legacy of Hope Foundation, U for Change, or Black Legal Action Centre.)

If you are interested in joining me in reading and discussing White Fragility, please fill out the form on this page

Stay safe everyone.

About the image:  Photo by James Eades, Unsplash.

Can this Partnership be Saved? (3)

7K0A0938(This is the third in an occasional series.)

Liz and Monica have a successful partnership doing all aspects of design and social media marketing. So far their clients have been small-to-medium sized businesses, but they’re eager to work with bigger organizations. Both women are hard-working and good at what they do. They’re equally committed to the success of the business and both put in long hours. On a personal level they get along well but sometimes see things differently.

For example, they were recently approached by one of the big national payday loan firms to put together a proposal for a complete re-branding project. Liz feels that the payday loan business harms the community. She doesn’t want to bid on the project because she feels that, by working for them, she would be complicit in the harm. Monica believes that “a dollar is a dollar” and that they’re not in a position to be so picky. This job might be their stepping stone to bigger projects. She wants to bid on the job. The two women are at an impasse and it seems there is no way to resolve it.

To my mind, shared core values are the single most important factor in a successful business partnership. Partners don’t need to be best friends; they don’t need to have similar personalities or even much of a shared history. But if they don’t share some basic values, the partnership is doomed.

Can Liz and Monica’s partnership be saved?

Maybe: If Monica is comfortable selling their services to anyone who can afford them, and Liz isn’t, then they two women won’t be in business together much longer.

Yet while Monica might have no problem with the payday loan business, there are likely to be at least some types of organizations she wouldn’t want to support. For example, she might not be comfortable working for certain political parties, or for businesses that test products on animals, or tobacco companies. But thinking this out before every new project and having to debate about every potential client is simply not efficient.

Liz and Monica need to have a conversation and come to an agreement about their business practices. Will they refuse to work with certain kinds of clients? Will they accept all potential business until they reach a certain level of success, and then start to be more choosy? The same causes that are important to Liz might not be important to Monica. They might have different priorities and different moral intuitions. That’s OK – as long as they present a united front, agree to support one another, and jointly reject clients on their “disapproved” list.

For more about business partnerships, see:

Can this Partnership be Saved (1) –  Martin & Eli have different management styles

Can the Partnership be Saved (2)Sam’s idea; John’s work. How will they share the profits?

Disgust – New Post at

What do we really mean when we say that we are “disgusted” by someone’s actions? Do physical and moral disgust share a common origin or do we simply borrow the rhetoric of disgust to show strong disapproval? I discuss some recent thinking on these issues in “Misdeeds & Disease: How Similar are Disgust and Moral Disgust?” a post for “Facts so Romantic” the blog of, a new science magazine.

Drug Companies & Discontinued Products

A & P Heart 1 (color)A sign that one is getting older is that retailers start to discontinue your favourite products.  The Gap no longer carries the most flattering style of jeans; the LCBO stops importing the French rosé you prefer; and the hair conditioner you once swore by is now nowhere to be found.  It can be frustrating when a familiar product is discontinued for seemingly little reason other than changing tastes.  But when the product in question is a drug that one relies upon to control a serious medical condition, “frustrating” takes on a new dimension.

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, more than 1,000 Canadians rely on disopyramide (trade names Norpace and Rhythmodan) to control the effects of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  In this condition, the muscles of the heart walls become abnormally thick, causing chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes fainting.  About half of the patients who try the inexpensive drug find it to be so effective that they can delay or even forgo open-heart surgery.  Disopyramide is made by Sanofi Canada, and this past February the company discontinued the drug, claiming weakened demand.  Patients who rely on disopyramide are scrambling to find supplies and at least one patient quoted in the Globe article, unable to track down a reliable supply, is booked for surgery next month.

Sanofi has promised to resume production, but they haven’t said when this will happen.  They have also committed to importing the drug from Europe and offering it for free (under Health Canada’s special access program) until production starts up again.

The Globe and Mail article quotes two cardiologists (Dr. Harry Rakowski at Toronto General and Dr. Lee Benson at the Hospital for Sick Children) who both expressed frustration with Health Canada’s current regulations.  Drug companies do not require any approval to discontinue their products, even when there is no alternative drug available.  And while companies are obligated to give 30 days notice before discontinuing a drug, they are not required to provide any rationale for their decisions.

The website of Sanofi Canada describes the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.  (For more on this vexed but possibly useful concept, see “Two Problems with CSR” by Chris MacDonald over at “The Business Ethics Blog.”)  And Sanofi takes ethical issues seriously enough to have a vice-president of evidence, value, and access.

Businesses need the freedom to discontinue products that are no longer profitable.  However, if a financially healthy company makes a decision to discontinue a product, and that decision has serious social ramifications, then considerations besides corporate autonomy come into play.  While Sanofi seems prepared to do the right thing and resume production of disopyramide, is it right that patients who depend on the drug have to rely on the company’s willingness to consider their interests?  Should Health Canada have some role in protecting patient access to vital but perhaps unprofitable drugs?  A month’s supply of disopyramide costs about $30.  What would be the comparable cost for even one patient to have open-heart surgery instead?

“Just War” and Targeted Assassinations (Part Two)

WarIn my previous post I wrote about the U.S. program of targeted assassinations against terrorists and the “just war” tradition.  I focused on jus ad bellum.  These are the conditions that must be met before a country has a moral case to declare war.  In this post, I’ll discuss jus in bello – moral restraints on the way war is fought.

First, a war must not be fought in such a way that it is a greater evil than the evil it is intended to remedy.  (Remember that a “just war” is one that is fought in order to promote good or avoid evil.)  So the harm inflicted by military operations must be both necessary and proportionate to the ends sought.  There is a moral difference between targeting a daycare centre and targeting a munitions factory.  It would be difficult to make a case that demolishing a daycare centre was necessary for victory in war, while demolishing a munitions factory might well help bring a quicker end to an armed conflict.

Second, non-combatants should not be intentionally attacked.

One complication arises right away:  How to draw the line between “combatant” and “non-combatant”?  According to a New York Times article about the U.S. targeted assassination program, when calculating civilian deaths caused by the program, all military-age males in a strike zone are counted as “combatants.” The reasoning is that, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

There is a further complication:  If  non-combatants are harmed as a foreseeable but unavoidable “side effect” of some proportionate and necessary military action, then, according to the “just war” tradition, the harm is morally permissible.  Philosophers in the “just war” tradition call this the “doctrine of double effect.”

For example, a leader decides that bombing a munitions factory is both a necessary and proportionate step towards military victory.  However the munitions factory is next to a daycare centre, and there is a risk that the bombs will strike the daycare centre as well as (or instead of) the factory.  The leader does not intend to harm anyone at the daycare centre, yet he forsees that this might be a possibility.  Although the leader must try to minimize the risk of harm to non-combatants (say, by bombing the factory at night when the daycare centre is likely to be empty), he is not morally obligated to spare the factory because of the risk to the daycare centre.

The “doctrine of double effect” is controversial.  Philosophers have argued whether the distinction between “intended” and “unintended, but foreseeable” actions really makes much sense.

The “just war” tradition does not provide a “formula” for getting clear answers on the morality of armed conflict.  It is best approached as a set of considerations for thinking through the morality of particular decisions and strategies.  Again, I leave it to readers to decide whether the U.S. program of targeted assassinations meets the criteria for “just war,” and even whether the criteria are themselves morally defensible.

“Just War” and Targeted Assassinations (Part One)

I just read a fascinating article in the New York TimesSecret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.  The article recounts how U.S. President Obama has placed himself at the top of a secret process to designate terrorists for kill or capture.  The President approves of every name on the “kill list” and is said to be determined to limit the extent of the secret program, and to make sure that the fight against Al Qaeda is aligned with American values.  That such a program involves a number of difficult legal and moral issues goes without saying.  For example, the killings are often carried out by drone strikes and as a result innocent bystanders have also been killed.

The Times article refers to Obama’s reliance on “the ‘just war’ theories of Christian philosophers” and it occurred to me that perhaps not everyone is familiar with these doctrines.  I thought it might be useful to say something here about the “just war” tradition, since it remains one of the bases of international law.

With the exception of pacifist cultures that eschew violence, every culture has ways of thinking about the morality of war and observes some conception of “warrior’s honour.”  This is the idea that, even in war, some things must not be done.  The “just war” doctrine sums up the ways in which western Christian tradition has thought about the moral issues arising from war.  (Originally, these restrictions concerned only what Christians could do to other Christians.  Non-Christians were given protection a few centuries later.)  The “just war” tradition stands in contrast to the “political realist” point of view, according to which war is an instrument of foreign policy and its use is restrained only by prudence, not by morality.  The concept of “just war” is also different from what we might call the doctrine of “holy war”- the idea that attacking others is justified in the name of spreading some “faith,” whether that is a religious faith or a political ideology.

The “just war” tradition divides the moral questions about war into two groups:  Jus ad bellum, having to do with the reasons for going to war, and jus in bello, concerning conduct during war.  The targeted assassination program brings up both kinds of questions.  I’ll discuss jus ad bellum in this post and jus in bello in my next post.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) formulated three requirements for the declaration of a just war.  Each is necessary, and taken together they constitute a justification for going to war.

  1. Those who command the war must have the lawful authority to do so.  (There cannot be “private” wars.)
  2. The war must have a just cause.  The enemy must deserve to have war waged upon it because of some wrong it has inflicted.
  3. Those waging war must intend to promote good or avoid evil.  (War must not be fought for the sake of vengeance or self-interest.)

Does the U.S. targeted assassinated program meet these requirements?  I’ll leave it to my readers to think about that.

Next time:  Moral restraints on conduct during war.

Unintended Consequences, the Common Good and Cell Phones in Africa

Hand Holding a Mobile Phone

I just read a fascinating article: “Mobile Phone Diffusion and Corruption in Africa” by Catie Snow Bailard, published in the journal Political Communication in 2009. The author looked at data from 12 countries from the period 1999 to 2006. She found that there was a relationship between the number of people in a country who had access to cell phones and the country’s level of perceived corruption: The greater the level of cell phone penetration, the lower the level of perceived corruption. In a second study, she analysed the degree of mobile phone signal coverage across 13 provinces in Namibia. Again, greater levels of cell phone coverage were associated with lower levels of perceived corruption.

(You might wonder why the author chose to examine “perceived” rather than actual levels of corruption. Corruption is a difficult concept to define, let alone to measure. For one thing, corruption is culturally variable. What is considered a bribe in one place might be seen as a necessary cost of business in another. Secondly, the often private nature of corrupt behaviour can make it difficult to detect. Counting the number of prosecutions for corruption in a given place might tell you nothing more than the quality of the prosecutors. For these reasons and others, social scientists rely on indirect means of getting information about corruption. Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index is one that is widely used.)

It is easy to understand that improved telephone coverage and greater ease of communication at a distance would improve the lives of Africans. But why would it contribute to lower levels of corruption? Bailard offers some plausible explanations. First, corruption thrives in conditions of secrecy, and opportunities for corruption increase in cases of information asymmetry – when one group of people has greater access to information than another group. Cell phones decentralize information. As more people come to own cell phones (or have access to them) information becomes more readily available. Bailard refers to another study that found that the simple act of posting a newspaper advertisement stating that aid was meant to be dispersed to certain schools significantly reduced the amount of aid lost through misappropriation. (That study, “Fighting corruption to improve schooling: Evidence from a newspaper campaign in Uganda” by R. Reinikka and J. Svensson, was published in the Journal of European Economic Association in 2005).

Another reason why cell phone use may decrease corruption is that they make it easier for ordinary citizens to fight corruption. It becomes relatively easy to contact reformers, government officials, or the news media. It is plausible that individuals contemplating corrupt behaviour will weigh their potential gain against the likelihood of getting caught and being punished. In a climate where exposure and punishment is likely, people who may have been tempted to increase their wealth through corrupt means will think twice. (I made a similar point about insider trading in an earlier post.)

The connections between cell phones and reduced corruption in Africa strikes me as a wonderful example of an unintended consequence. No one involved in the business of providing mobile phones to Africa did so with the aim of reducing corruption. Rather, they saw a good business opportunity and hoped to make a profit. The reduced levels of corruption were a good consequence, but one that nobody intended or even foresaw. When I have taught ethics in the past, many students are very readily convinced by the view that good acts are those that have the best consequences. Indeed, many find this view obviously true. The problem, though, is that the line from an act to its consequences is not always straight or apparent. There are countless examples of good-willed individuals who thought that their actions would produce beneficial results only to be dismayed by the actual outcome. This is the problem of unintended consequences, and it is a powerful reason to act with caution, especially when our actions will effect others. It is good to be reminded that unintended consequences can be positive as well as negative, and that neutral acts can bring about beneficial results.

Another point – we often assume that when people act in their own interest, the benefits they reap will be strictly individual as well. But happily this isn’t always the case. Here, many individuals acquired cell phones for their own purposes and improved their lives. Yet out of their individual actions emerged the collective good of reduced corruption.

Conflict Resolution and Business Ethics

Elemental weights
Photograph by Mike Smail

Conflict resolution is an ethical issue because how we treat one another, including how we treat others with whom we are in conflict, involve ethical considerations. In business, conflicts and the ethical and management challenges they present can arise in a number of areas:

Between two or more organizations: Between a business and its suppliers – who absorbs the extra cost when a shipment is delayed because of an unexpected storm?
Between a business and its sub-contractors – what to do when the terms under which contracts were written no longer apply?
Between business competitors – how to resolve intellectual property disputes?

Within an organization: Between employees and management – over wages, benefits, working conditions, and everything else.
Between different divisions of an organization – what should be done when the “creatives” disagree with the “suits” or when the sales team is frustrated with the software engineers?
Between two or more employees. (See my earlier post on microwave ovens as a major cause of inter-employee strife!)

Between a business and its customers: What counts as a “fair” policy in the case of unsatisfactory products? Does caveat emptor apply across the board?

Between a business and the community: What is adequate compensation for environmental damage? (Remember the BP oil spill?)
How much should a profitable company give back to the community?

For many of these issues, the initial response might be, “Call in the lawyers. Find the extent of our legal liabilities or entitlements.” Or: “Look up the company policy. What are rules around this?” For some issues, this kind of information will be crucial. But what an organizations does with this information and the response it makes will be crucially important. For some, the default response is an adversarial, hard-nosed, “take no prisoners” approach. What are the likely consequences? One of the parties in the dispute might win big; the other might have to make concessions. It is more likely that neither of them will get everything they sought. In any case the relationship is probably finished. Each party will then have to expend time and effort building new relationships, probably at great cost.

A less adversarial approach to conflict resolution can help preserve and even strengthen relationships. A great example of this was the intellectual property dispute between Digital and Intel back in the late 1990’s. Digital filed a patent infringement suit against Intel; Intel filed a lawsuit seeking the return of crucial documents from Digital. Claims and counter-claims went back and forth and both companies saw their share prices fall. Luckily, while lawyers for both companies were preparing to bring the various matters to court, the directors of Digital and Intel kept meeting and talking. Eventually, working together, Digital’s president Robert Palmer and Intel’s COO Craig Barrett worked out a preliminary agreement that was acceptable to both companies and advantageous to both. I believe that the case is still studied in business school as an example of creative problem-solving and skillful management.

There’s a saying in business that, relationships are worth more than gold. I think that sums up why effective conflict resolution in the business context is both an ethical issue and a management issue.

Conflict Resolution and Anger

Anger can make us do and say things that we later regret. It can make a person do and say things that they would never do or say in normal circumstances. Most of us know or have known someone who became angry over trivial matters, or whose anger was detrimental to themselves and their relationships. There is a Buddhist saying that I think perfectly sums up the self-destructive character of anger: Holding onto anger is like holding a burning coal with the idea of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Yet there is another side to anger. Anger or indignation can also be tied to our sense of justice and injustice. When we believe ourselves or others to be the victim of an injustice this can make us angry. The philosopher Aristotle thought that the ability to feel anger to the right degree, at the right times and for the right reasons, was a characteristic of a virtuous person. He thought that there was something flawed about a person who would fail to become angry over a serious injustice to himself or his friends. And later feminist thinkers have linked the ability to feel anger to proper self-respect. This is why to tell a woman that, “You’re cute when you’re angry,” is demeaning. It suggests that the individual expressing anger (and the slight that caused it) are not to be taken seriously.

So while the expression of anger can be both damaging and self-damaging, it is not necessarily an emotion we’d be better off without. Sometimes we feel driven to express anger, as Shakespeare’s “shrew” Katherine tells us:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
or else my heart concealing it will break.

Yet at other times the expression of anger would be self-indulgent at best, and have serious harmful consequences at worst. I have in mind here occasions like expressing anger towards a boss, co-worker or a customer, or having an angry exchange with one’s partner (or ex-partner) in front of the children. Even if the capacity to feel anger is tied to self-respect, sometimes the ability to suppress the expression of anger is a sign of mature self-restraint.

In modern society we’re often encouraged to express anger. However it is worth noting that the available empirical evidence does not support the view that the expression of anger is always beneficial. In fact, recent research suggests that the expression of anger is helpful only if it is accompanied by constructive problem solving designed to address the source of the anger. [See Littrell, J. 1998. “Is the Re-Experience of Painful Emotion Therapeutic?” Clinical Psychology Review, 18, 71–102; and Lohr, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. 2007. “The Pseudopsychology of Anger Venting and Empirically Supported Alternatives,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5, 54–65.]

Mediators have different views on the expression of anger during the mediation session. While mediators are trained to diffuse anger and other negative emotions, they don’t always choose to do so. I’ve heard experienced mediators say things like, “My clients were really screaming at each other – that’s when I knew we were getting somewhere!” I find it interesting that these mediators link the expression of anger with the work needed to resolve a dispute. It has been known for some time that attempting to solve disputes through a confrontational process such as litigation tends to make individuals who are already aggressive even more so. Furthermore the expression of anger in litigation is unproductive; it is not tied to any work or to any eventual solution of the dispute. The very nature of litigation is that someone else has the responsibility for solving the dispute. The expression of anger in a mediation session is a different matter. It has the potential, at least, to be real constructive work. An angry exchange in the privacy of a mediation session might be part of the process that leads to a satisfactory resolution for everyone involved.

Note: I’d like to thank my friend Jim Davies, cognitive scientist at Carleton University, for telling me about the research mentioned above. Check out his blog posting on How to Deal with Anger.