Standing for nothing…
Posted June 17, 2014on:
Good afternoon Widdershins.
The Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl episode has caused me to engage in an over-abundance of thought about “values.” Thinking about values isn’t new or particularly unique since a system of “sustaining and sustainable values” is central to understanding leadership. And when I say “leadership,” I mean anyone who aspires to place themselves in a position of leading with followers.
If you are even a casual viewer/victim of cable news, you hear a lot about “values.” More often than not, those people waxing eloquent are interchangeably using the words values, principles, ethics, and morality. They are not the same. The differences are important. The recklessness of their interchangeable usage, as does the Bergdahl affair, highlight the cheapening of what was once sacrosanct in our society — the concept of values.
So we can all start at the same point in this analysis, a few paragraphs on the differences among values, principles, ethics, and morality would seem to be in order. First, values are those core beliefs we form early in our lives. Once formed, they are unchangeable and indelible. They are as unique to an individual as eye color or fingerprints. Values form the basis of our internal compass.
Personally, I am quite reticent about criticizing someone’s values. Basically there are two reasons: First, values are so personal, it is the equivalent of criticizing someone’s hair color or weight, and second, it does no good. Trying to change someone’s values is a fool’s errand, it is a waste of time — you can’t change someone’s values.
A few other nuggets about values: If you find yourself in a situation where you are somehow affiliated with someone who consistently proclaims values, but acts in violation of those claimed values, do yourself a favor — run. Run away as fast as possible.
Some of the most dangerous and destructive people on the planet are those who proclaim a set of values and change them as often as they change socks. Associating with someone who has repugnant values is far superior to associating with someone who has no values at all. Someone with transactional or situational values is no more predictable than a two-headed snake and a lot less loyal. So run, don’t walk, and avoid such people at all costs.
Another point worth mentioning is that there is no such thing as “family values.” Anyone who proclaims “family values” has never been to a Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Values are personal and they are not replicated through genetics. The term “family values” is nothing more than a socially and politically desirable shorthand for a set of conjured principles deemed morally superior and as such, a barrier for acceptance by one group over another. In other words, “family values” is a cudgel to beat down those who are deemed of lesser value in order for those doing the beating to appear worthier in comparison.
Which brings us to principles. Principles are those beliefs we acquire as we go through life. We often hold them dearly and strongly. While they can appear like values, they aren’t. Principles can change. Conservatives can become liberals and vice versa. A pro-choice person can become anti-abortion. A dogged chauvinist might become a feminist — unlikely, but possible.
While our set of values remain unchanging, principles come and go throughout our lifetimes. Principles are more often than not a product of our sociological and economic environment. When those external stimuli change, often our principles do too.
That is not to say principles are not central to who we are as people. Principles are how we are informed, how we vote, how or if we worship, how we parent, how we socialize, and any of a thousand other things that round out our human journeys. But since principles are acquired — a process of conscious acquisition, criticism of principles is fair game in my book.
This leads us to ethics. Ethics are how we treat one another when we decide we belong together — whether we belong together as a family, a community, a country, and increasingly, as a planet. Professional groups, social groups, corporations, even communities adopt codes of ethics — those rules governing how we treat one another. In a country of laws and judicial review, our ethics are proscribed through permissible actions, while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of those not in the majority. The Bill of Rights is nothing more than an enduring code of ethics not unlike a Rotary Club creed.
Finally, this brings us to morality. Morality is the stuff we ought to have learned by kindergarten. Morality is the differences between right and wrong. While there can be gradations of gray in ethics, morality offers no such leeway. Like values, morality is personal, but it is governed by a large societal scorecard. Almost always our personal morality is effectuated and amplified by our values. Thus, we have come full circle. We have a word for what morality is not — “immoral“, but we don’t have a word for what values are not, but that is what this post is for.
To tie these concepts into a nice tidy bundle, I have found no better analogy than the game of chess. It is an analogy that has withstood scrutiny and it goes like this:
In chess, the paramount value dictated above all else is the efficacy of the King. The value of protecting the King is of supreme importance. The moves, the defenses, the offenses, or the feints we use to protect the King are the principles we employ as we play the game. The rules governing all who choose to play are the ethics. And the morality is whether or not we cheated during that play. Those are the differences between values, principles, ethics, and morality.
What does this have to do with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl? Simply put — everything. “Leaving no person behind,” was as close to a universal American value as they come. Leaving no one behind was where we altered the principle, “the good of the many outweigh the good of the one,” and changed it to, “the good of the one outweighs the good of the many.” Leaving no one behind was a celebrated societal ethic — it was how we had decided to treat one another. Even if not a value or a principle on a personal level, we had deemed it an imperative of morality and a collective ethic. It was the right thing to do.
That is — until the Drudge Report bat signal went up on the Saturday after the announcement of Bergdahl‘s release. The Drudge Report is the Pavlovian klaxon these days signaling to tear helter-skelter and headlong into full-blown criticism without the slightest bit of reflection. Within hours of the announcement of Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, after five years — five years — of incapacitating confinement, it was on. Unmerciful criticism of him, his family, the President, the military, the State Department, Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and just about anyone who dared mention “Bergdahl” without adding the words — traitor or deserter was subject to unbridled scathing judgment.
There were those who had previously supported the exact same deal reported almost verbatim in June 2012 by now-deceased reporting wunderkind Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone who now found the deal objectionable. There were those who actually recalled and deleted tweets offering “thoughts and prayers” for Bergdahl and his family. There were those who claimed Bergdahl’s father, a devout Christian, was a secret Muslim because of the beard he had grown as a show of solidarity for his son. His hometown had to cancel a homecoming celebration out of fear of thousands of protesters.
Thankfully these vicious attacks have somewhat subsided since it became known Bergdahl is psychologically fragile after having been kept in a six-by-six cage for a large part of the five years. It just as well might be these vicious attacks have subsided since there is very little left to say beyond the vitriol already spewed. Whatever the reason, there is an opportunity for learning here. Learning that is ominous in its consequences.
However inartfully I’m saying it, “whatever leaving no one behind is, be it a value, principle, ethic, or morality, it is something we just watched being cavalierly discarded during the Bergdahl imbroglio.” What is even more perplexing: For those who led the charge of this indignity, there seems to have been no cost — either by condemnation or shunning. This is new and particularly worrisome.
Have we reached a point in this country where there is nothing sacred in terms of our shared values, principles, ethics, or morality? Is nothing above the rancorous pettiness that passes for national discourse these days?
Do those people who purportedly stand before us as “wannabe leaders” offer nothing more than insidious transactional values ready to be auctioned for some face time on cable news? Since when did our ethics become so abysmally bankrupt that it is acceptable to treat one of our own so shamefully?
When did getting five minutes in the news cycle come to have more currency than an inviolate pledge to leave no one behind? When did we invert the burden of proof to pronounce Bergdahl guilty of desertion no matter what the proof of innocence might be? And most importantly, when did we, as a people, become so anesthetized to this behavior that we became okay with this type of thing?
This list of imponderables is virtually infinite. What’s more, that this list of questions is limitless is what makes this shameful episode so foreboding. By tolerating this craven disregard for our values, our principles, our shared ethic, and even our morality, this marks a new low for us as a society. Has the venomous rancor turned us into a people who stand for nothing? If it has, we will fall for anything.
This is an open thread.
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