What do we do when our values and our beliefs are in conflict with the decisions our government makes? If we are honest with ourselves and aware of what is going on around us, we will start to notice how often this happens with greater frequency. When we see those situations, we will begin to feel uncomfortable. As I see it, we are faced with three choices at that time. The first is that we can ignore the conflict and pretend it doesn’t exist. As anyone who has tried to solve a problem with denial can tell you, this isn’t a very effective solution to anything. The second is that we can fragment our world and our awareness by saying that our values are one thing and the government is another, with the two never meeting. That’s a false distinction, because government supposedly represents the people. This is little more than another kind of denial, as ineffective as pretending there isn’t a problem. The third is that we can choose sides, either saying that our government is always right or that we trust our own values to guide us toward what is right, regardless of what the government says.
What about when our values conflict with themselves? What do we do in these cases? Suppose we consider ourselves pro-life and one of our friends points out that our support of the death penalty conflicts with a pro-life identity. How do we resolve that conflict? Many people, unwilling to honestly examine their values and beliefs in any but the most superficial way, decide to forego resolving the conflict and insist that those are two completely different questions. The problem is that they aren’t different questions at all, and if we hope to be a moral person of integrity we need to resolve that inconsistency. What about someone who considers themselves pro-life but is opposed to offering free pre-natal care and well baby check ups to all mothers and children who can’t afford them?
Here is the hard part. You will likely never convince someone who doesn’t want to look at the inconsistencies in their values to do so. Nor is it our job to get them to look. Our job is to look at our own values and check their consistency, and then get on with the important work of implementing those values, period. If we waste our time and energy trying to convince people of the error of their ways, we won’t have the time and energy needed to work for the change we hope to see in the world. There will always be people who choose not to deal with reality as you and I understand it. Trying to convert the deluded is a fool’s errand that depletes the energy of the converter and leads to burn out. There is nothing that says we need to reach consensus with the rest of the world before working for change. In fact, striving for consensus only assures that nothing will change, because consensus is very difficult to achieve. Is it ever acceptable for a child to starve while we try to achieve consensus on a feeding program? Is it okay for someone to die of a preventable illness because we can’t agree on how to ship the vaccine? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problem and allow those who are predisposed to meaningless debate sort things out after the fact?
The old black and white Superman television program’s opening informed us that Superman stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” I’m not quite sure who is to blame, but Superman seems to have dropped the ball because now we have “Alternative Truths, Lack of Justice, and the Autocratic Corporate Way.”
The above photo is obviously of a different time. Superman could stand to put in a little time at the gym, and Jimmy Olson appears to be getting ready to cop a feel from Lois Lane. It’s a reminder that even the good old days were far from perfect, and getting lost in visions of a idyllic past are little more than indulging in self-deception and delusion. Still, there were some values back then that are worth reclaiming – and doing a better job of living them out while we are at it. Not the least of them is truth. In Superman’s world, people were embarrassed if they were caught in a lie. People still lied of course – it’s hard to overcome human nature – but it wasn’t seen as a virtue. Someone who was caught compulsively lying would have problems finding a job, whereas today they earn a promotion.
Integrity may be old fashioned, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a virtue. In fact, it has been so ignored by our culture that it has become counter-cultural to tell the truth. It’s ironic that the Republican Party in America, which used to hold itself up as the party of virtue and values, now has a President in the White House who wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped on his head like a ton of bricks. How to reclaim integrity and truth? We reclaim it by practicing it in a grassroots movement that starts with each one of us. What’s holding you back?
Remember values? They were those old fashioned things that gave us a somewhat consistent outline of what we would and wouldn’t do. Most people would say, for example, that killing other human beings is wrong. Other values included the idea that it was a good thing to be honest, to avoid cheating, to act with integrity, to be a reliable friend and a good parent. Most people would agree that stealing is a bad thing and that fairness is good. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse was frowned upon, even if it was a value to which we didn’t universally adhere. A man’s word was his bond, and a oral agreement was binding.
Back in the days when we had values, conservatives generally held forth against what they called relativism or situational ethics. Something that was wrong was always wrong, no matter the circumstances. Of course, that proves a rather immature ethical stance that doesn’t hold up, but they tried. You may hold that it’s wrong to go into another person’s home unless invited, but going into a burning house to save someone doesn’t require an invitation. Today those same conservatives seem to have no problem with deceit and outright lying. All you have to do is listen to a politician to know that neither conservatives nor liberals have any problem with selling the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again. What would be the consequence of acting that way in our own workplace? I suppose that depends on where you work and who your customers are.
One thing is certain. A society without values cannot survive long because a lack of values erodes trust. If we cannot trust one another we will not long be able to live in proximity to one another. In America, our society is polarized as never before, and some would counsel learning to get along no matter the cost. I disagree. It simply isn’t possible to get along with valueless, deceitful fools. What we need to do is rise above this nonsense and vote. Those of us with integrity need to reassert our influence in society and speak truth to power and deceit, reemphasizing the value of character. Nothing less will do.