If you’re searching for ethical leadership, first look in the mirror
In this electronic age of indelible memories, it didn’t take long for Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen to dig up this tweet fired off by Nancy Pelosi in February 2011:
“I stand with the students & workers of #WI; impressive show of democracy in action #solidarityWI”
So here’s our question to you, Madame Speaker: if you praise union workers as patriotic when they storm and vandalize the Wisconsin state capitol to protest collective bargaining reform, how in good conscience do you condemn as insurrectionist Trump supporters when they storm and vandalize the nation’s capitol to protest possible election fraud?
Take your time. I’m not holding my breath waiting for an answer.
TWO CAN PLAY
In his book Win Bigly, Scott Adams explains the method to Donald Trump’s madness that enabled him to win the 2016 election. By waging a relentless campaign of one outrageous act, comment, or tweet after another, Mr. Trump overwhelmed his ideological adversaries with outrage fatigue.
The anti-Trump camp couldn’t settle on any one incendiary issue long enough to mount an effective counterattack since, before they had time to respond, that outrage had been lost in a flurry of subsequent outrages.
Ultimately, what goes around comes around. Whether they’ve taken a page from Mr. Trump’s book or whether they wrote the first chapters themselves, politicians have weaponized a mutation of the same virus to infect the national psyche through their appalling lack of intellectual consistency. The result is an epidemic of–let’s call it hypocrisy fatigue.
When everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous. When there is no commitment to honesty or even-handedness, when double talk and double standards are not only common but expected, we eventually grow numb to the wholesale depreciation of character that threatens the survival of civil society.
IN OUR OWN EYES
No doubt, Nancy Pelosi has no trouble parsing a distinction between the Wisconsin “protest” and the capitol “insurrection”—at least in her own mind. And that is precisely the problem. When our ethical decision-making process gets hijacked, whether by emotion or ideology, we no longer recognize the fallacies in our own thinking or the hypocrisy of our own conduct.
This applies regardless of party affiliation or political philosophy. And Biblical history teaches that it’s been going on since time immemorial.
Following the death of Joshua 3265 years ago, the era of the Judges was marked by a continuous oscillation between prosperity and crisis, between unity and factionalism. The prophet summed up the underlying cause of national schizophrenia with a deceptively simple critique:
In those days there was no king; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
When there is no universal respect for authority – whether through a lack of leadership or through the failure of leaders to lead – every person becomes his or her own moral authority, rationalizing the ideas and outlooks that are most comforting and convenient. And the more commonplace rationalization becomes, the less any of us hold ourselves accountable for intellectual inconsistency or moral compromise.
A LITTLE LIGHT TO PIERCE THE DARKNESS
This is why the real battle for ethics begins in our own hearts and minds. It’s easy to conclude that in a world where duplicity has become the standard, setting higher standards for ourselves is pointless at best and self-destructive at worst.
But if we look deep and think deeper, we can rediscover that part of ourselves that longs for what’s right and recognizes virtue when we see it. In life and in culture, the darker it gets, the more difference a little light can make.
Choose to make yourself a source of ethical illumination. If you do, you will inspire others to add their light to yours. Together, we can push back the darkness of self-serving ideology and rebuild communities devoted to the betterment of all.
Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” The applies not only to others but also to the truths we tell ourselves. If we commit ourselves to pure and enduring values, those values will naturally guide us as we confront the complexities of life at work, at home, and in our communities.
By demanding intellectual integrity from ourselves, we will earn respect and trust from others – even those who disagree with us. By seeking truth, we will recognize who is and is not worthy of our trust and our respect – even among those with whom we agree.