Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill.
The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives.
Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning.
This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders.
Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.
And now tell me this. Who should own that house?
Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction.
Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it.
Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered.
Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.
The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis.
That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.
But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.
I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.
If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by.
We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces.
I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.
The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent.
I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.
But so many similar stories are not.
The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim.
It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water?
That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.
My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?
Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.
Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong.
But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.
If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.
Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad.
But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line?
We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves.
Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.
Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.
When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest.
Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers
The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent.
I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics.
There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.