The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on how tolerance may hold together a family whose members have very different beliefs and values.
I am in a deeply committed, “finally found the one” relationship with another woman. But my oldest sister, close to everyone else in my family, has declined to meet her, and we have been estranged for the past two years because of it. I’ve been unwilling to have a relationship with my sister that does not include my partner. Although my family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, this sister is a particularly stringent one. I left the religion at the age of 18, having never been baptized. My parents play both sides by telling us that they love and accept my partner while also sympathizing with my sister’s disgust for same-sex relationships and her view that mine ought not to be welcomed into the family. A few months ago, I asked a sister whom I do have a relationship with to take my young son for two weeks at her home in the Midwest and requested that my other sister, because of our strained relationship and the pandemic, not be allowed to visit him. My estranged sister grew enraged and showed up anyway. She was allowed in, and no one ever apologized to me. I felt violated and betrayed.
As a result, I relocated with my son to a temporary rental near the university where I am a student, and I keep a distance from all my family members. Though it has meant less contact between my son and his grandparents (with whom he is very close), I took this step to protect my own mental health. Since then, I have been accused of taking my son away and “using my son as a weapon,” and these claims have circulated in the family even though we have visited my parents multiple times in the last several months. And in the past few years, my oldest sister had regular FaceTimes with my son when my mother was watching him. It has never been my intent to take away his aunt. All I’ve ever asked of my oldest sister is to meet my significant other and have a more normal relationship with us.
The times we have visited have not been free from drama: Once, when my father was talking on the phone with my estranged sister, I even overheard her say disparaging things about me. How can they expect me to feel comfortable visiting when this kind of upsetting thing might occur — and my son might even overhear it? I have tried to delay confrontation by saying I am busy finishing my studies, but my family feels my coldness and will not stop confronting me. This confrontation, in turn, feels a lot like gaslighting: How is it my fault that they feel this way about same-sex relationships? My family continues to deny that my oldest sister has done anything wrong, and they don’t see their complicity in the matter. I asked for mediation and even offered to cover the costs, providing my estranged sister did the legwork of finding the mediator. When they finally contacted a mediator, the professional mediation team, after individual consultations with us, concluded that there was “no mediatable issue.”
Am I wrong to insist that my oldest sister meet my partner if she wants a normal relationship with me and my son? Am I wrong to take a step back from the rest of my family and limit our contact because of their role in condoning this? And my most nagging question: Is there really no mediatable issue? Name Withheld
In a perfectly just world, everyone in your family would celebrate the successful, loving relationship you and your partner enjoy. (Congratulations, by the way.) You are owed acceptance and support, and those who deny this to you are in the wrong.
End of story? Clearly not. Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the Christian faith groups that espouse a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude toward homosexuality. It’s possible that your mediators withdrew because they feared tangling with religious doctrine, which can indeed make fraught situations even more so. If your oldest sister told them, accurately, that the family’s creed, as promulgated by its Watchtower Society, disapproves of homosexual acts, they might have concluded that there was nothing more to be said or done.
I’m a little more hopeful. First, while you’re understandably hurt and affronted, you’re also eager for reconciliation. Second, your parents and your other sister also want everything to work out — and happily spend time with you as a couple. Complications, of course, set in immediately. First, precisely because they want family harmony, they’re caught between you and your oldest sister. Second, they’re presumably not departing from their faith and its views about sin; they’re simply not challenging you on this.
This is tolerance in the classic sense: They are putting up with, or looking past, the fact that you and your partner have a sexual relationship. In many circles these days, “tolerance” has a bad name; shouldn’t we really hold out for respect? It’s easy to dismiss it as weak tea. Yet tolerance of this sort is what makes most families — most communities — work. Tolerance enables people with different belief systems to live together, sometimes peaceably, sometimes lovingly. That’s no weak tea. You naturally object that these three family members are putting up with — rather than challenging — your sister’s disparagement of you, as well. But this would seem to be because they love you both. They don’t want to be fighting constantly with either of you, and they don’t think either of you is going to change.
You, too, are practicing tolerance, of course: You are putting up with the mistaken belief that there’s something wrong with the exercise of your sexuality. Although your family members belong to a creed you’ve rejected, you have reached a modus vivendi with them that seems mostly to have worked. You keep your self-respect by making it clear whenever they do wrong by you.
That happened when your non-estranged sister allowed your oldest sister to spend time with your son after you explicitly asked her not to. Yet (the voice of tolerance says) the sister looking after your child was in a difficult situation, with an angry sibling at her door. It’s understandable that she took the easier way. And you’d like your son to continue having a relationship with his grandparents and his aunts. So, now that you’ve made it clear what you think, there seems little point in trying to get them to acknowledge they erred in indulging your intolerant sister. What you can insist on is that you won’t leave your son with your parents again unless they promise that he won’t be with your oldest sister or otherwise exposed to disparagement of your relationship.
And they’ll accede to this only if they can persuade themselves that it isn’t a rejection of their eldest daughter. Yes, this is all maddening, and yes, there will be people who will zealously urge you to sever your ties with the lot of them. But for you, I suspect, amputation would leave you with phantom limb pain; you’ll still be fuming about their baseless claims and rehearsing majestic, irrebuttable arguments.
How much contradiction can you live with? Many philosophers, over the generations, have thought it terribly important that all our beliefs be consistent; according to “coherentism,” a belief is justified if it coheres with our other beliefs. In real life, the normative and factual beliefs we hold are a patchwork quilt. (I suppose that’s particularly obvious to me, having grown up on two continents with friends and family members belonging to very different ways of life and modes of thought, but it’s true for all of us.) Hence your family’s seemingly untroubled desire to maintain a loving relationship both with you and your intolerant sister. Concord, not coherence, is the goal.
Your most consequential choice is about what you want from your stringent sister. Christian traditions are rich and complex. As a result, people often pick out the parts that suit them. I confess to preferring the more open and loving side of Christianity — Christ’s caution that we shall be judged as we judge, that we ought to mind the beam in our own eye before we attend to the mote in the other fellow’s. So don’t give up quite yet: Remind your sister of these teachings. Even if homosexuality were wrong, hatred or contempt for conscientiously mistaken family members would be wrong, too. And unlike your sexuality, your sister’s attitudes are something she has it in her power to change. In this context, the Watchtower Society specifically directs our attention to its rendering of I Peter 2:17: “Respect everyone.” You have choices to make. So does she.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include ‘‘Cosmopolitanism,’’ ‘‘The Honor Code’’ and ‘‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.’’ To submit a query: Send an email to email@example.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)