Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Loyalty and Other Bad Ideas

One of the things about me that some people seem to respond negatively to (sometimes with great hostility) is that I actively have no principles. For me, the beginning of principle is the end of thinking. We take a belief, we somehow canonize it and make it more than true; the belief takes on properties of being God-ordained or absolutely true. We call the belief a principle.

To be clear, I'm not talking about scientific principles or underlying chemical elements that form a substance. I'm talking about moral or ethical standards and judgments. I believe that these serve not only to end thinking, but are the basis for breakdown of relationships, strife and even war. So, I try to live a life that is as unprincipled as possible.

Words Help Us Avoiding Thinking
As we grow and acquire language, we begin to see and think less and less. Consider the automobile. Although automobiles vary in size, shape, color and sound, we still manage to call everything from a VW Beetle to a Lincoln Continental, car. If we we look at various cars and think about them, enumerable differences emerge. We could even look at two identical orange Beetles and spend all day identifying how they differ. Yet, whether talking about a Toyota Corolla or a Porsche Carrera GT we simply say, "go get in the car".

The word car provides great economy in communicating. We don't have to say, "go get the orange colored semi-circular shaped metallic object with four circular rubber objects supporting it".

We simply say, "go get the car".

Words and generalizations save time and thought making it possible to do more.

However, any time we use a word that can describe a broad set of objects or actions, we've in effect stereotyped those objects or actions, painting them with a broad brush if you will. We do so because we find the stereotyping useful.

When Words Go Awry
The problem with the wonderful economy of words is that we can get lazy in their use. We're all familiar with the bad use of stereo-typing, e.g., all men belong in the kitchen, all blonds are smarter than other people, all Finns are all blond, etc.

However, there are many instances where the use of stereotypes is more subtle. In these cases, the stereotypes have become so integrated into our thought processes that they've replaced thought.

The Power of a Word
Consider the word education which has become somewhat a moral imperative. We have programs with passionate names such as No Child Left Behind. Parents stress over whether or not their child will get into a good college and whether or not they'll be able to pay for it. It seems that no one even questions whether or not their child should go to college. It's just a matter of how to get them to the best one possible.

This evolution of the word education has become problematic at best.

First, what do we mean by education? From one perspective, everything we do with our children is part of their education: teaching them to tie their shoes... teaching them to cook... teaching them to change a tire... teaching them to play piano... taking them to church... reading with them... and so on.

Yet for many, education has evolved to almost exclusively meaning school and, in particular, college or university.

Second, education has been intimately linked to one's capacity to earn a living. If you don't get a good education, you won't be able to afford a house or a car or children, etc. This implication seems be accepted without question.

The Problem with Education
By allowing education to become synonymous with school, we often don't pursue the other, less formal avenues of education that are so useful to our kids such as teaching them to cook or change a tire or build a wall. They miss out.

Further, one can easily make a strong case that investing the money one would have paid for college can easily yield greater financial return than going to college, specially when you consider all the people who graduate from college and never find or pursue work in their field of study.

By allowing the word education to mean going to college in order to make a living, no one seems to question whether or not education is a good idea. It's not just a good idea, it's an imperative.

As a result, hundreds of thousands young people spend billions of dollars annually on formal educational programs that will never bring them to where they really want to go; money and time that might have been better invested or spent on educational activities that suited their desires and interests.

Why Loyalty is Stupid

So, what's all this got to do with loyalty. Loyalty is another word that has evolved from something that simply meant faithful to a person, ideal, custom, cause, or duty to a sort of incantation that obligates someone to choose a side in a conflict independent of information and thought.

In situations like this, even the idea of investigating the facts or asking thoughtful questions may be characterized as challenging and disloyal.

For example, lets say that you have two dear friends who are divorcing. Knowing your friends and their situation, you may have seen cases where either one was less than reasonable, more than demanding, less than charitable, unfair and/or unkind. You may have experienced arguments and fights that were the fault of either one, both or no one.

Still, what often happens when friends divorce is that you will be expected to choose sides, even when choosing sides is totally unnecessary. You may be someone who simply wants to take each event as it comes and evaluate it based on what you're seeing in the moment without bias. In which case, you might be accused of being disloyal by one or both friends. Rather than being viewed as someone who might provide a voice of reason you're viewed as a traitor.

Principles vs. Integrity
In the end, whenever we forfeit our ability to ask questions and analyze the answers, we forfeit our intellectual integrity. Whether the absence of questioning and thought is the result of wholesale acceptance of terminology and stereotypes or of buying into someone's vociferously voiced morals and principles, we surrender who we are in the process.

I invite you to identify the words in your life that serve as principles and then to explore what you really mean by them, whether or not you really buy into them, and if so, how they affect your integrity.

Have a wonderful Tuesday!

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