Monday, May 31, 2021

Glittering Prizes and Endless Compromises

Because this past week was the 47th anniversary of my first playing "Working Man" at WMMS-FM, I ended up with a lot of new followers on social media (I've got more than 7,000 now on Twitter, much to my surprise). Since many of them are new to following me, they're probably also new to my blog, which I've maintained since early 2015. Sometimes, I do blog about Rush (as you can see from checking out some of my past postings); sometimes I blog about sports, or politics, or education. But this time around, I wanted to blog about ethics. 

As Rush fans know, the title of this post comes from the lyrics in the song "Spirit of Radio," but this is a topic I've discussed with Neil (and with other folks) many times. We all want to think of ourselves as ethical. We all want to believe that--unlike some folks-- we do have integrity and, if given the chance, we would do the right thing, where others would not.  Life is rarely that simple, however, and even the best people sometimes find themselves in a situation where they tell a lie, or cut corners, or make excuses. In other words, we don't always live up to our own ideals.

But I've been wondering about where some of us draw the line. I mean, are there things you just would not do, even if you could get away with them?  And if you were called upon to make a difficult choice, how would you decide?  What brought all this to mind was two things that happened recently. One incident involved pro wrestler and actor John Cena, who made the mistake of acknowledging in an interview that Taiwan is a country (which it is). But China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, and as a result, China's media and the country's leaders demanded that Cena apologize. Cena, who wants desperately for his new movie to be seen in China, almost immediately went on Chinese social media and issued a fervent apology-- even though, deep down, he knew he did nothing wrong. So, wasn't this one of the "endless compromises" that "shatter[s] the illusion of integrity"?  

And then, on a more serious note, there is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, a time in our history when the editors of some allegedly reputable publications, the political leaders of a large city, and even some members of the clergy decided that lying was better than taking responsibility for their part in what happened. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, an angry White mob destroyed the prosperous part of town known as Black Wall Street, killing or injuring large numbers of Tulsa's Black residents.  Sad to say, some columnists incited the mob, using inflammatory and exaggerated headlines, and then praised what the mob was doing. Some White clergymen rationalized and excused the actions of the mob. And the city's White political leaders not only did nothing to try to stop them, but made sure the mob had weapons.  Later, although everyone knew what had really happened, they all worked hard to make sure the facts never came out (and that didn't change for decades).

So, if you were John Cena, would you have stood up to the powerful forces that could determine whether you made a lot of money, or would you have just decided to say what they wanted you to say, take the money, and go on with your career?  And if you were a White reporter in Tulsa, or the mayor, or the leading members of the clergy, and you witnessed the damage the mob was doing, would you have had the courage to tell the truth about it? Would you have tried to stop it? Or would you have decided it was safer to do nothing, for fear of public disapproval, or fear the mob might turn on you next? 

I understand how difficult it is sometimes to speak up, and speak honestly.  I understand that it can cost you friends (or folks you thought were your friends) or cost you the approval of people you work with, or maybe even put you in a dangerous situation.  But in a world where ethical behavior often seems to be in short supply, that's why we need to show more respect for those who try to be honest, especially at times when honesty isn't popular. My favorite philosopher, the late great Emmanuel LĂ©vinas, said we should always put ethics first. Imagine how much better our society would be if more people thought that way, rather than thinking about the next lie or the next excuse or the next compromise whenever the truth seems inconvenient.

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