1. If an employer makes sexual advances towards an employee, is it the same, ethically speaking, as if an employee makes sexual advances towards his or her employer?
2. If one person hits another several times and then the second person hits the first back, are they equally guilty?
Question 1 shows how a power differential in a relationship means that things that go one way aren’t the same as things that go the other way. If the employer asks the employee out, the employee may feel pressured to say yes to avoid being fired. If the employee asks the employer out, there is no threat of firing. Therefore, it is more unethical for an employer to make advances on an employee than vice versa (although it may be unwise in both cases). In some situations, the employee may be irreplaceable and so may back up sexual advances with the threat of quitting, so this doesn’t necessarily apply to all employer-employee relationships, but the unbalanced power is still present in this second scenario, so the overall principle remains: if there is a difference in the amount of power people have over each other, their actions, even the same actions, may not have the same ethical quality.
Question 2 shows how the past can impact the ethics of situations in the same way: the same action may be worse in one case than in another due to what has happened in the past. Hitting out of self-defense is not as bad as hitting on the offensive. Hitting after being provoked over a period of time is not as bad as hitting unprovoked.
Power and the past are two parts of the context of these ethically charged actions. We have to keep in mind when discussing politics that the actions we discuss and the policies we debate do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in a context full of people with differing amounts and kinds of power, a context that includes a long past of different types of injustices.
That’s why when someone says “How come they can say n—– and I can’t? That’s racist!” or “You wouldn’t get so angry if a woman said that about a man instead of vice versa” and so on and so forth for a very, very long time, you have to stop and look at the context rather than just accepting the vice versa test as a universally valid tool of logic. They can say n- and you can’t because you (white people) have racial power and they don’t, and because the past of that word involves a lot of white people using it to hurt black people. I don’t condone any sexist remarks, any stereotypes based on gender, but I acknowledge that there’s more power behind sexist remarks from men to women, and a past of oppression of women that there isn’t for men. It’s unlikely that these remarks will make men suddenly start to be treated as property, but it’s not unlikely that they will reinforce long-standing beliefs that women should be treated as property. This principle applies to affirmative action, too – in the past, people of color were strategically kept poor and uneducated. Now, we’re trying to undo that. That’s more like self-defense than offense.
But people tend to get confused about where the line of scrimmage is, if you’ll let me take that defense/offense talk a little further. Because they don’t know the past, in which their “team” bullied its way far into the other team’s territory, or because they know that happened but think that the other team has already regained its lost territory, they assume that where they’re standing right now is the line where things are fair, the rightful border between their space (their rights) and the other team’s space (other team’s rights). So when the other team pushes back, the bully team thinks the bullied team is on the offense, when really they’re on defense. (For instance, Bully team: “I mean, fine, they’re gay, I can deal with that, but why do they have to be PROUD about it and shove it in my face?” Or, Bully Team: “They won’t let us have [teachers lead official] prayers in [public] schools! Christians are being persecuted in America!” Or, Bully Team: “They made me press 1 for English! Can you imagine?”) The bully team reacts with what it thinks is defense, but is actually even more offense. And since this isn’t an actual sports game (of some weird derivation of American football or something), offense is not a sign of being a good player, it’s a sign of limiting people’s rights. This is an illustration of how privileged people who are genuinely or willfully ignorant of their privilege play politics. (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Ok, now I’m done with the p alliteration. And the extended metaphor. My English teacher would be almost proud. Actually, my English teacher who had us debate affirmative action and was in favor of it while I was against at the time, probably would be pleased. And it appears that I really do have a penchant for p’s.)