I have two best friends, Ginny and Maria. We live in the same neighborhood. Our kids play together.
Last Wednesday I happened to be looking out my front window and saw Ginny driving in her SUV just as Shackleton, Maria’s beloved yellow lab that she’s had as long as I’ve known her, crossed the street. Ginny hit the dog, then slowed down–but didn’t stop. I ran to help but Shackleton was so badly hurt Maria had to put her down. I feel like I lost my chance to say anything; I didn’t want to betray Ginny so I pretended I didn’t know what had happened.
Maria has been inconsolable and has been trying to find out who killed her dog. I want to tell her the truth but I can’t bring myself to snitch on my friend. Ginny has said nothing. I’m in a quandary. Please tell me what to do.
– Hell in Suburbia
Over the course of this column, we’ve seen opinions from around the world diverge, but never as widely as on your question. It gets at the moral responsibility of the bystander. Our French correspondent advises you to flee at the chance you’re living alongside a psychopath. Our South African correspondent admonishes, heal the whole community. Between the “See something? Say nothing” from Pakistan and Japan, and the wily substitution proposed from Nigeria, you’ll get a glimpse of how differently people construct the line between themselves and their responsibilities to others. As to what you should do? This column will get you thinking along new lines.
From Our French Correspondent
Given your signature, I’ll dare share a personal belief of mine: Hell is suburbia. Hell, as described by Dante, is a punishment fitted to each individual. Yours has taken its true form.
A number of studies, or if not studies then movies, and if not movies, countless TV shows, have defined three criteria as the hallmark of a psychopath: criterion one, maiming a beloved pet in cold blood; criterion two, pathologically lying; criterion three, an inability to feel empathy. And yes, you are reading the same studies I do, or watching the same movies and binging on the same TV shows. These three criteria, my poor soul, are indeed the telltale signs of a psychopath.
My advice? Try speaking to Ginny directly. But if she denies her involvement, delete all your accounts on social media, pack your family up and run as far as you can. A psychopath SUVs down your alley, eyeing her next prey from the roomy interior of a Subaru®, the weapon of choice of the modern suburbanite who demands dependability in motion. It is only a matter of time until she strikes again. You’ve revealed you know Ginny’s secret. Countless studies, books, movies, TV shows and sub-reddits speak to it: you may be next on her list!
Fortunately, unlike the damned in Dante’s, you can still escape this version of your personal Hell.
From Our Japanese Correspondent:
Have you ever seen three monkeys? They see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It is not only the way to get on in the world, but also consideration for others. It’s best if you keep silent. Ginny has already been punished–most likely, she cannot help feeling guilty every time she sees Maria and is reminded of her dog. Having thoughts of revenge is not good for Maria’s mentality, either. Even if she finds out her friend hit her dog, she cannot do anything but suffer more.
If you really want to tell the “truth” (I don’t know what evidence you could show), I think you should persuade Ginny to apologize to Maria first before you snitch on her, and then try to help keep the peace in your neighborhood.
From Our Nigerian Correspondent:
Three lessons scream out at me from this “suburban hell.”
The first is the value of loyalty. That you are loyal to a friend who has done wrong is admirable. Saintly almost. It is really rare nowadays.
The second is that even friends will disappoint: at times, very deeply.
But they are still friends. They were not meant to be saints.
While I suspect Ginny will no longer be a “best” friend of yours, we have a saying in these parts, “who seeks a faultless friend remains friendless.”
And therein lies the third lesson.
“Saying something” is often times wrong. If you had “snitched,” you would have broken up three friendships: yours and Ginny’s, Ginny’s and Maria’s, and then that involving the three of you. In Nigeria, we believe instead in “doing something,” and here is what I suggest.
Step 1. Approach Ginny and tell her what you saw. Not to shame her, but to tell her she needs to make amends and offer her this ready-made solution from Nigeria. It could have been her dog. Her child. She would have wanted the driver to stop if it were either. Frankly, I suspect that talking to her is necessary for your peace of mind also.
Step 2. Since Maria is a dog-lover, you and Ginny can, and should, team up to start to salve Maria’s wounds by providing a new dog. Possibly a yellow lab or something close, as Maria might have a preference for big, cuddly ones. The important thing is that Ginny needs to pay for it alone. There begins her restitution.
Step 3. Shackleton Jr. — let’s call the new dog that — will be presented as a gift by BOTH of you. You have contributed by getting Ginny to help heal Maria’s pain, while saving three friendships in the same fell swoop.
Your job in this transaction is to convince Maria that the only way to forget an old love is to begin a new one. Even old Shackleton in her grave would want her to be happy.
Step 4. Finally, once things have settled and Maria has bonded with Shackleton Jr., Ginny needs to come clean. Time salves all wounds. I want to believe Maria would be willing to forgive, with more than a few tears sealing the deal. Ginny can claim then (probably truly) that she was so ashamed of her actions that she kept quiet, but was so hurt by Maria’s loss that she had to restitute with Shackleton Jr. Something tells me it is best to keep your role as the scheming architect of this reconciliation quiet. I am frequently amazed by how quickly friends turn when they know that you “knew and didn’t tell me.” It will be akin to taking one for the team, and which friendship doesn’t need a sacrifice every once in a while?
Or, maybe not. If you do disclose your role, please write back and let us know the reaction. I am curious to know if Hell in Suburbia gets hotter or freezes over.
From Our Pakistan Correspondent:
A dog may be a man’s best friend but a human best friend is dearer. You were clever not to tell Maria since telling won’t bring the dog back. Hold on to both your friends; console one and guard the other. It is not your job to play the cop or Watson right now; you saw nothing. If not divulging saves three friendships, keep that mouth shut!
From Our South Africa Correspondent
Dear Hell in Suburbia
Well, I think your loyalty motive for sitting on this information shows that you do, in fact, still possess all the shiniest moral tools to solve this problem.
As it relates to you alone, the answer is quite simple, and I’m sure others in this column will make it clear. In fact, it would only be a real quandary if Maria was your enemy.
But if you’d like to fix this whole mess, and turn it into a positive – I mean closure for Maria, self-respect for Ginny, a clear conscience for you, and a deeper friendship for the three of you – then you need to be prepared to confess that it was you who killed the dog.
Let me tell you why.
I’m from South Africa, and the tool that we South Africans supposedly use to solve tough ethical quandaries is called “ubuntu.” Its literal definition is “human kindness,” but the South African version is more like a deal; a social contract with a slightly selfish incentive: “I get to regard myself as fully human only in terms of my recognition for your humanity.”
In other words: we need to freely join friends like Ginny in the moral trench, and climb out together.
We either belong to each other, or don’t belong at all.
Desmond Tutu says that we, as individuals, “are diminished when others (strangers) are humiliated or diminished,” and that we therefore have the ultimate incentive to remedy the distress in others.
It also requires that we don’t smugly look to ourselves as exemplars.
So a good example is Linda Biehl, mother of the American student Amy Biehl. Amy was brutally murdered in apartheid South Africa while doing anti-apartheid work in the run-up to my country’s first democratic elections. Biehl’s murderers were later given amnesty at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. But here’s the ubuntu kicker: when one killer later got married in Cape Town, Linda flew out for the ceremony – and danced with the groom.
Linda Biehl defines the moral toughness needed for ubuntu’s big picture benefits.
Linda Biehl has said that she discovered personal freedom in forgiving her daughter’s four killers, and much more in actively loving them, and receiving their love. They call her “Makulu,”which means “wise woman.” She and her husband have since co-founded a foundation to help disadvantaged people like Amy’s killers become “functional young people.”
I suspect that most writers in this column will be advising you to talk candidly, and lovingly, with Ginny. To encourage her to confess to Maria. And they’d be right.
But the stakes will hinge on how you frame this conversation.
The ubuntu-esque approach to this might be to kick off that conversation with Ginny by telling her you love her; by recounting your gratitude for the good deeds she has done in the past; and to declare that you feel no judgment toward her, no matter what she decides to do.
To explain to her why it is so important that Maria find closure, in knowing who was driving the car that hit Shackleton. And then to tell her that, out of love for both your friends, you are sincerely willing to tell Maria it was you who hit her dog.
It’s up to Ginny.
The ubuntu theory is that Ginny would break down in cathartic tears; rediscover her own humanity through yours, and go confess to Maria in a second round of tearful emotion, where she would cite your selfless offer as the reason for her coming clean, and turning over a new leaf.
There must surely be a reason why Ginny—someone you clearly respect otherwise—would drive away from the scene of an accident. Perhaps she carries the trauma of some past incident. Or perhaps her relationship with Maria was already on thin ice, and she thought silence the only way to preserve it. Hopefully, she would confess the foundation of her moral flaw to Maria, and this vulnerability would trigger new empathy in Maria.
Perhaps she’d offer to find a new canine companion for Maria, and offer to walk it every week.
Of course: There are a grand total of maybe two South Africans who might actually take this blame-ownership approach: Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu.
Most of the rest of us? We’d march over to Ginny’s driveway, scrape a swab of dog fur from the front grille of her SUV, knock on her door, and say: “WTF, sister? Seriously? Get your ass over to Maria’s and fess up, or this fur will fly.”
And that’s the best of us. The worst might drop that fur sample into an evidence bag, and extort the keys to that SUV from Ginny, in exchange for sitting on that devastating information.
Still, at least the example of the moral generosity of a Tutu or a Biehl may allow you to consider the context behind Ginny’s behavior.
Like I said: we South Africans can be as cynical as anyone else.
So it’s really an American mother’s example you may wish to follow. South Africans simply know why.