Thursday, September 15, 2005
The End of the Story (?)
Hello, everyone. A whole lot has happened in the past day. Please bear with me as I try to explain all of this, the best I can. Which might take a while.
The response we have gotten since we started this site has been overwhelming. (I think this new "internet" device might catch on.) But for some reason, both my fiancée and I have been struck with periodic bouts of uneasiness in the past few days --uneasiness we couldn’t quite pinpoint. We got a few e-mails that questioned whether we were on morally shaky ground by using the Katrina disaster to “shame” a guy into donating money. And we took them to heart.
Despite the fact that we believe our original intentions were pure -- that we wanted to suggest a better use of money than fixing a bumper -- we found ourselves wrestling with some tough questions. Is it okay to shame someone, just because we disagreed with his decision? Is it not okay? How could it not be okay if we have raised this much money? Do our intentions even matter? Are we in some way being petty? Are we trying to dodge personal responsibility? (After all, we hit him.)
In short: what the hell are we supposed to do?
We have done nothing for the last 24 hours but think about this situation. I have consulted my friends, co-workers, and, believe it or not, professors of ethics at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford (who were very generous with their time, speaking with me for more than two hours.) We took all of their thoughts and feelings and advice into consideration, and here’s what we did.
I called Saab Guy, and we spoke for about fifteen minutes. Saab Guy told me that he had been doing a lot of thinking himself, over the last few days. He had talked it over with his wife, and had worried constantly that he was being petty. But the thing is, the crease bothers him. He wishes it didn’t, but it does.
I told him that he had every right to get his car fixed. I also told him that I had told the story to friends, and they had told their friends, and that there were people who were willing to make matching donations in his name. I did not tell him the amount, but I explained that it was a lot of money. (I wanted him to know that this matching situation existed, but I did not want to bully him. This was my biggest dilemma; in the end, acting on the words of the various ethics professors I spoke with, I decided that this was the best course of action. My decision was my own, and if I botched it, somehow, ethically speaking, the fault lies with me only.)
Saab Guy then told me that he had already given money to the Katrina Relief Fund (a possibility I weirdly never even considered at the time of the original discussion.) For the record, I completely believe him. And he understood my impulse, but he said that he wanted to handle this thing separately from (and I'm paraphrasing here) the moral obligation we all have to help those in need. (Fair enough, I thought, since the only reason these two things are linked at all, is because of my fateful decision to link them.) So, we mulled it over, and he suggested this compromise: We will send him a check for $836. He will use some of it to fix his car, and some of it will go to charity.
Perfect? Probably not. But nothing this layered is going to have a “perfect” result.
I anticipate this question from many of you: how could you not tell him the exact amount? Wasn't that the point? The reason I didn't is as follows.
Something felt iffy about this whole thing, to us. And we finally pinpointed that thing. And that thing was: that this story started as a private interaction between us and Saab Guy. Frustrated with what we considered pettiness, we decided to suggest a course of action that we felt was un-petty, as a way to fight back. Then, something neither of us anticipated, happened in a matter of hours: hundreds of people jumped on board, in a kind of internet-style execution. And given that shift of power, we felt we should morally reassess the situation.
To put it another way, we feel our intention was pure, and we stand by it. All we ever wanted was for money to go to charity. But when we opened up our efforts to other people -- and got them riled up with the idea that we were going to shame this guy, and make him confront his own decision, and basically scream at him with the weight of the internet and money behind us...well, it just feels a little wrong, in retrospect. That feeling, of wrong-ness, was suppressed for a long time by the euphoria of seeing pledges roll in, and watching this thing spread so rapidly.
None of us, I would say, could hold up under the kind of scrutiny we have put Saab Guy under. None of us is perfect. I think his original decision was silly, but we all do things that are petty, and selfish, and stupid. Maybe Saab Guy loves his Saab more than anything in the world. My most treasured possesion is a 1960 Carl Yastrzemski baseball card. What if someone accidentally tore it, and told me they would buy me a new one...or donate its monetary worth to charity? What would I do? Well, I'd probably want a new one. And that, without question, would to many people seem petty.
I don’t know how much of the $836 we send him will go to charity. But to us, this feels like a victory. Some part of that original $836, which had been earmarked to fix a creased bumper, has now been redirected to a far more worthy cause. And hopefully, thanks to the story and a few e-mails, a far greater amount will follow on its heels.
I have been asking you not to pledge anything that you would not otherwise donate. I hope that those of you who pledged are in some way satisfied with this result. I hope, as well, that you are optimists, and you recognize that Saab Guy mulled things over, and changed his tune a little. I hope you believe that Saab Guy is going to donate $835.99 to charity, and put the remaining cent toward fixing the bumper. Most importantly, I sincerely hope that everyone who pledged money to this idea follows through and donates, which is really all that matters. Because the money will help people. And, perhaps as a bonus, though it may seem abstract, we hope that our original idea has somehow survived this ethical minefield, and every donation that gets made because of this story (or, any other story) will counteract the concept of pettiness.
Please go to http://www.RedCross.org, and follow the link to the Hurricane Katrina site. Enter the amount you pledged. If you so desire, please make the donation in tribute to: Saab Guy. (There is a box you can check on the site that allows you to donate in tribute to, or memory of, someone.) Alternately, make the donation in your own name, or in your friend-from-New-Orleans’s name, or in any name you wish.
When you do this, you have to fill in an address as well, to which the Red Cross will send a letter telling the honoree that an amount was donated in his/her name. I invite you all to have that card sent to your home addresses, and to keep the card as a little memento.
If you would like to donate to another charity, please do so, and then let us know.
Either way, please then send us an e-mail at the address above, and tell us how much you have officially donated. So many of you -- the vast, vast majority, in fact -- told us you had already given something, which is so heartening. Just for the heck of it, we would love to have a running tally of the actual money that was given specifically because of this random occurrence. We will try to update this blog periodically with running tallies of the actual donations.
This has been one of the most interesting and complicated events of my adult life. It has twisted us around, sparked a lot of heated debates, and made us feel everything from euphoria to despair. It contains dozens of ethical and moral questions, the details of which we might be unraveling for years. Our only intention was to raise money for a good cause, and I hope we have done so.
And now, at the end, here is what I think I believe.
1. If someone bumps into your car, and some small and (almost) unnoticeable damage occurs, I personally think you should smile, and wave, and say “No big deal,” and let the person go. (Someone should write a book about this kind of thing. You could call it, like, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” or something. It could make a fortune.)
2. If something terrible happens, here or elsewhere, find a reason, any reason, to donate money.
3. I don’t think I will ever buy a Saab. I’m sure they’re great cars. I just don’t think I could drive one.
We will leave you with one final thought. This is an e-mail from a friend of mine, which says everything I have tried to say, in one neat paragraph:
I'll be happy to donate $20. (I've already given, so I'm not just being comically cheap.)
By way of contrast, I'm not a lawyer. Last April I got hit pretty hard at a stoplight by a guy in a Civic. He wasn't paying attention, and when the light changed he floored it. My head hurt. I took his information and left. He told me that he was a teacher who had just moved to LA to do Teach for America. I called him and told him that I'd take the car in to get looked at and then ask him to pay the bill. He said that would be fine. When I took the car in after the bumper started rattling, they told me I'd need a whole new bumper. It turned out it cost around $700. I thought about giving the guy who hit me the bill, but then I figured, Well, I'm an overpaid TV writer and this guy's a 22-year-old kid who just moved here from Indiana to do Teach for America. Screw it, I'll just pay for it.
And then I sued the $#!* out of him.