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Families Ties and Democratic Culture
“He’s such a nice boss. I have never heard him raise his voice at someone in the office.”
I listened to a co-worker describe the CEO of another company downstairs with whom I had never interacted. She went on:
“In fact, I’ve only heard him raise his voice three times, and even that was on the phone: once to his ex-wife and once to each of his kids.”
I nodded politely and the conversation moved on. I was inwardly a bit puzzled by this choice of example. Was this the best testament to someone’s kind nature: only yelling at one’s wife and children? Admittedly, I am a young, unmarried woman and this story was related by one of several beleaguered mothers sitting across the table from me, but I was underwhelmed. I would much prefer to be the sort of person who loses her temper at work than at home; much more is on the line in the latter.
Still, I wondered why these women used this example. Democratic culture, with its deep commitment to equality, often asks the individual to ignore personal preference in the interest of fairly distributing resources, be they economic or emotional. In order to view people as objectively equal, we train ourselves to see those around us as individuals with the exact same worth and rights. This requires us to ignore our personal attachments and the historical, relational investment we share with a select few. Because we will never meet most people, because of our inherent involvement in a community, and because we cannot avoid developing deeper attachments with the people we know best, this attempt to retrain ourselves is frequently thwarted. The results is a strange tug-of-war in many people’s behavior between recognizing deeper attachments to family and friends and the intellectual lip-service we give to the idea that we care about all of mankind equally.
It is this tendency in democratic culture that makes the example given by my co-workers reasonable. If democratic culture is right, if American ethics starts with the totality of equal individuals rather than the natural attachments in one’s immediate purview, then it makes no difference whether a man mistreats three employees or three family members. So why does being rude to a family member seem so much more inherently distasteful to us? Perhaps because we sense that while we are equal in some grander sense, in the sense of day-to-day kindness, we are constantly forced to prioritize competing claims on our time, emotional resources, and energy.
The man described earlier only yelled three times. The brief description of him shared with me almost certainly does not do him justice; in fact, those three moments of frustration may be the exception to a very affectionate rule for him at home. But we rightly should expect people to recognize different obligations to one’s family than to one’s co-workers. At the end of the day, one will still be building character whether one is patiently answering the third phone call of the day from a micromanaging co-worker or from one’s nagging great aunt.
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