It occurred to me recently that our society no longer seems to frown upon dishonor; we simply accept it.
We don’t think it wrong or abnormal for somebody to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth . . . and then lie. We don’t blink an eye when somebody promises to stay with somebody until death . . . and then divorces them. We don’t fight when a company says it’s providing unlimited Internet access and then sets a maximum bandwidth limit. Our politicians and public servants swear an oath to uphold the Constitution and then blatantly disregard its provisions. Heck, they’ll even give you a new civil right—the ‘right’ to health care—and then demand that you take advantage of it. If it were really my ‘right,’ it would be my right to choose whether I want to take advantage of it . . . after all, my right to free speech does not require that I speak!
It seems like we’ve gotten to the point where nobody will make an unequivocal, honest, straightforward statement. Everything comes with diplomatic hedges, fine print, disclaimers, corrections, and exceptions. When a company says ‘unlimited Internet’ or a politician says ‘you have a right to [x],’ you have to research it and make sure that the fine print doesn’t say ‘unlimited isn’t really unlimited’ or ‘it’s not a right, it’s a compulsory mandate.’ We can’t trust hardly a word anybody tells us.
If a company tells you that a service is $45.99/month, you have to check to see what surcharges, fees, and taxes go on top of that. You also have to check what service you’re getting, since the description probably has an asterisk after it. You also have to check under what conditions the company can completely change the agreement and fees, and what notice (if any) they have to give you when they do so. You also have to check what information of yours they are collecting, and what they have declared they can do with it. This might be a reasonable expectation if companies started providing free legal representation to their potential customers to review and parse all the gibberish.
I understand that the full terms of a complex service agreement can’t be covered in an advertising slogan or product title. The details will always be buried somewhere in the fine print. But can’t we at least demand that the titles and slogans in the foreground be accurate? The word ‘unlimited,’ for example, has a meaning in the English language. Shouldn’t companies be prohibited from using that word to describe something that is, by definition, not unlimited? Shouldn’t we expect and demand—either through law or through consumer action—that companies at least accurately describe their products in the big print too?
In politics, our elected officials swear an oath of office when they take their positions. Presidents swear to ” . . . preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Congressmen similarly promise to ” . . . support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” These people have taken a solemn oath to do what the Constitution tells them to do, and then the vast majority of them blithely ignore it.
The Constitution, after all, prohibits laws limiting speech—especially political speech—but that didn’t stop our government from passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The Constitution prohibits any infringing of the right to keep [own] and bear [carry] arms, yet our government has required background checks to purchase guns and prevented us from arming ourselves on federal property. The Constitution also specifically states that the federal government can only do things it’s specifically authorized to do (see the Tenth Amendment), and yet the government does a million things without authorization—from health care mandates to buying General Motors to broadcast ‘decency’ regulations to automotive safety standards and more.
You know, some of these things aren’t bad—some of them, like car safety standards, are undeniably good—but if we want the government doing these things we have to write amendments to give them Constitutional authorization to do so, or we need to manage them at the state level like the Tenth Amendment demands. An honorable politician who takes his oath of office seriously would never support any of these things, since they are direct violations of a promise he made to the American people.
Sadly, this dishonorable behavior of saying one thing and doing another extends to our private activity as well. If it didn’t, we would have a very low divorce rate—an honorable man or woman who swears to love, honor, and cherish another until death does them part would do what they promised they would do. I’m not condemning everybody who has been divorced; for example, a wife can’t be blamed for the end of her marriage if it ended because her husband slept around and then abandoned her. But, even in this example, we see dishonor on the man’s side. He promised faithfulness to his wife and broke that promise. Honorable people keep their promises; thus, if both husband and wife are honorable, they will never divorce.
We see dishonor in our professions of religious faith. While the actual means of profession differ between Christian denominations, when one makes a free will self-dedication to the Christian faith through adult Baptism and/or Confirmation they have—implicitly or explicitly—promised to at least try to live a Christian life. Far too many then proceed to not do so, rejecting the teaching of Scripture and Church to plot their own narcissistic moral path through life. People of free will, of course, have the right to plot their own moral path through life . . . but an honorable person would not profess their obedience to God only to then ignore the guides of Scripture and faith tradition. They would either make an effort to be obedient to the promise they made (and make corrections when they inevitably fall short), or never make that promise in the first place.
We find yet more dishonor in euphemistic, inaccurate, or ‘politically correct’ descriptions. We’re either too afraid to say what we really think in plain English or, at the opposite extreme, we oversimplify and mischaracterize the views of those we disagree with. Sometimes we do both at the same time. People call themselves ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ instead of just saying they’re pro- or anti-abortion. People who oppose illegal immigration get branded ‘anti-immigration’ (or even ‘racists’) by people who refer to illegal immigrants as ‘undocumented residents’ or something equally obtuse. We come up with terms like ‘homophobic’ to lump a complex range of moral and political views about homosexuality into something that means, literally, ‘fear of homosexuals’—an accurate description for a small percentage of people to whom the term is applied, and an inaccurate exaggeration or lie about the rest. In each of these cases and in countless others, we are using language to mask the truth when we should be exposing it.
I try not to succumb to these dishonors (although I’m the first to admit that I’m imperfect and have done so from time to time). I try to characterize my own views, and the views of those I disagree with, in an accurate and dispassionate way on this web site and in conversation. I keep the promises I make—to family, to friends, to employers, to governments, to Church, and to God. If I have any reasonable expectation that I won’t be able to keep a promise, I won’t make it in the first place. If I ever do have to break a promise, I do so with full disclosure about why and I make an effort to make it right. In my professional life, I take responsibility for my mistakes and try to always make accurate estimates and reports (in fact, in a previous job, I found myself often having to stand on principle and correct inaccuracies and misrepresentations in our official documents . . . this did not endear me to some of my superiors).
I do not expect perfection, from myself or from others. I do, however, expect that people, governments, and companies to make an effort to be fair, accurate, and truthful. I expect honorable behavior and, except when absolutely necessary, I don’t do business with those who behave dishonorably. The problem is that dishonorable behavior is now so ingrained in our society that I have to do business with dishonorable companies and people. Every U.S. wireless company, for example, has branded a data plan as ‘unlimited’ when it isn’t. Every bank, telecom, ISP, and utility company has some legal fine print on their service agreements that allows them to unilaterally screw you over. Promises mean so little to people, even in things as serious as religious faith and marriage, that you stand a depressingly high chance of running into somebody who will behave dishonorably toward you even if you are honorable toward them.
That, however, is not a reason to give in and ‘fight fire with fire’ by behaving dishonorably yourself. I think the best thing we can do as individuals is hold ourselves to the highest moral standards, and behave honorably and respectfully toward others in all cases. It won’t necessarily work to our advantage—’nice guys finish last,’ and all that—but it does set a fine example for those around us and, more importantly, for our children. I think this is what my Christian faith demands and, indeed, I would think that even non-Christians and atheists would see the value in bringing honor back. The increasing narcissistic, relativistic attitudes that so many have today are clearly and objectively bad for our culture and our society, and it’s time to start reversing this destructive trend.