This is the third essay in a series called, The World in Flux, which reflects on moral dilemmas surrounding racism and how to rise above personally and collectively.
When authorities fail to lead, the public must show the way
This year we’ve seen that what counts as “good behaviour or character” or what is “right, honest or acceptable” is not held in common. That’s how the Cambridge Dictionary defines “morality.” Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “In the normative sense, ‘morality’ refers to a code of conduct that would be accepted by anyone who meets certain intellectual and volitional conditions, almost always including the condition of being rational.”
Is it rational that…
…police kill unarmed people?
…people judge others on anything but character?
…heads of state dismiss guidance from medical experts during a pandemic?
…people willingly help spread a virus by amassing closely in crowds?
…leaders preach one thing and do another?
…protecting power and wealth trump protecting life?
Beliefs and behaviours that are “no-brainers” to some people are anathema to others. Surely there’s variance across cultures about which ideals are held high or cherished, but the one value we’d expect people everywhere to rally around is survival. Preserving life.
Yet we’re not — we are divided on the topic of survival.
In 2020, this most basic human instinct and right has been threatened and even quashed in places. Instead of protecting life and enabling the ability to thrive, ignorance and self-interest have prevailed. And worse, there are people who are acting specifically against survival — both the authorities and the public. For instance:
The police are supposed to protect citizens, not kill them.
The world has seen how another unarmed black man, George Floyd, was murdered by a police officer, exposing systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. The incident resonated with citizens in other countries — Taiwan being the latest — who united in a call for equality. Corruption among authorities isn’t new, and the biggest cover-up in history has been sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Not every holy man or police officer is guilty, but when a system learns to cope with corruption by masking it, it is…well, there are no words for the evil. Trust and respect for those institutions nose-dive when crimes come to light.
When did abuse of power get sanctioned?
Presidents are supposed to keep their citizens safe, not expose them to danger.
The U.S. and Brazil lead the rankings for Covid-19 deaths, with about 125,000 and 56,000, respectively. The Washington Post wrote on Sunday, “President Trump — who has repeatedly downplayed the virus, sidelined experts and misled Americans about its dangers and potential cures — now finds his presidency wracked by an inability to shepherd the country through its worst public health calamity in a century.” And The Guardian reported a week ago that, “A Brazilian judge has ordered Jair Bolsonaro to rectify his ‘at best disrespectful’ behaviour by wearing a face mask when circulating in the capital, Brasília. The president has sparked outrage by repeatedly flouting measures designed to slow the advance of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Brazilians.”
Both presidents favour protecting their economies. No doubt they ran the numbers for both scenarios; the death of the economy (impact to all) or the death of a certain number of people (impact to few). “Sacrifice the few to save the many” is an ages-old philosophical debate, and it would seem to be one to contain damage that is certain. But there was a massive overlooked factor in the spread of the virus: Time.
Too little was done too late, if at all, to mitigate the potential damage in the two countries. Had these countries acted quickly, the impact might have been sharp but short. Instead, pockets of infections keep spiking like a horror version of Whac-A-Mole. Will we outpace the virus?
What responsibility could outweigh protecting the physical existence of one’s citizens?
The Washington Post, 27 June 2020
“As case numbers began rising again, Trump has held rallies defying public health guidelines, mused about slowing down testing for the virus, criticized people wearing masks and embraced the racially offensive ‘kung flu’ nickname for a disease that has killed at least 123,000 Americans.”
Some people reject official guidance to wear a mask and socially distance from others.
The media is full of accounts of extremists in America who claim the government is trying to “play God” or rewrite the Constitution by requiring them to wear masks in public spaces. Leicester, England, is back on lockdown because a few Covid-19+ people were out, spreading it across the city. Millions of people, there and elsewhere, flouted the advice of medical professionals when joining crowded protests.
Did they miss biology class in school? Do they realise their choices hurt others?
All the above are preventable risks to basic survival. How can we be so divided on such a fundamental right of existence? This is not a debate on the death penalty for crimes of first-degree murder, this is about choices people make that increase the likelihood of suffering and death.
It’s about following a moral code of decency.
THE FALSE DILEMMA
Today it seems that people feel the need to pick a side. That we either need to be for or against a matter. It’s the kind absolutist thinking that says, You’re either in or you’re out. It’s inflexible and intolerant, and much of what we are seeing playing out in the news, fueled by many media outlets with unabashed bias. Three research studies found that, “Americans who relied on Fox News, or similar right-wing sources, were duped as the coronavirus began its deadly spread. Dangerously duped.”
But life is not binary (yes/no, black/white, support/oppose, love/hate), it’s about navigating the gray areas by considering the if and maybe scenarios. Making an informed decision is paramount. Start with the facts, then explore and weigh the variables. There are two kinds of data:
- Quantitative data comprises objective facts that can be assessed with logic. The brain, like a computer, is the key actor here.
- Qualitative data comprises subjective information that provides texture and context beyond numbers. This comes from the human experience, and heart and soul, and is very much about intuition (knowing something without knowing how you know it).
What’s interesting about how the coronavirus response, is that the American and Brazilian presidents were accused of not caring or exhibiting empathy for their people. This is very much a qualitative judgment — one of morality and ethics. Both men remain unapologetic, unwavering in their stance.
In other countries — including the U.K., criticised for delaying lockdown by a week, and Sweden, which adopted a ‘herd immunity’ approach by merely suggesting precautions — authorities did not come under as much fire. They defended decisions by saying they considered all expert advice, but then made their own calls. Sweden’s scientific advisor disagreed with the government’s conclusion. Scotland diverged from England by going more conservative on its pandemic play. Were the leaders’ decisions reflective of the local moral code?
Hindsight is 20/20, but we’re not past this pandemic. We’re in the midst of it yet, though the acute first stage is over. And that stage was staggered around the world. The benefit of lag time (behind Asia and Europe) that the U.S. and Brazil had was squandered as a learning moment. The Americans had more lead time to prepare, yet they did not learn from the protocols of those before them. Well, the majority of state leaders did, urging a conservative approach, but that was dismissed by the presidents.
Taking their view, it might seem that keeping the economy going and taking measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus are at odds. They are not because of time. Fast action to contain the virus’ spread mitigated the economic fallout in many places; New Zealand being the model of excellence. By resisting the best medical advice for immediate and strict lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing directives, Trump and Bolsonaro ignored the quantitative facts and downplayed the risks to keep the economic engine running. We’ll never know about the qualitative data, what their intuition told them.
Did they consult their own ethics or egos?
Time will tell, but the people lost faith. Approval ratings for both presidents have tanked. Trump’s hovers at 40% (near his lowest ever), and polling revealed 58% of the population rates Bolsonaro as “bad/terrible”; his highest market yet. Was this form of collateral damage considered in the decision-making process?
These are measures of faith in a leader, and they matter particularly in dire times when hope is in demand.
Was it just a matter of bad PR on their part, or do their citizens feel let down by a lack of moral compass? Perhaps communicating with sincerity, respecting the science, and acting with humanity to protect lives would have maintained or lifted their approval ratings?
Death is the game-changer. You can be hungry, homeless and alive. Being alive gives you a chance. Being dead does not.
MIXING MORALITY & POLITICS
Are we right to demand that our leaders represent “good behaviour or character” or what is “right, honest or acceptable”? Here’s what some experts contend.
“Political ideology may be understood in terms of rapid, intuitive judgments stemming from evolved psychological mechanisms. These mechanisms issue in judgments about politically relevant social issues (gay marriage, marijuana), economic issues (unions, school funding), and defense issues (military spending, particular wars) for which justifying reasons may be marshaled after the fact. The twist is that our moral judgments, it seems, may arise from the intuitive processes that shape our political orientations and rationalizations of them.” –Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Sam Houston State University (Texas), wrote in Psychology Today six months ago. In 2018, “A View of Racism: 2016 and America’s Original Sin” was published in the Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy.
“The morality – or immorality – of politics is an inescapable issue for philosophers, politicians and common citizens. It is particularly topical in times of dramatic political developments that put under severe strain moral constraints on individual and collective choice and action. Today, we are facing an array of pressing issues in both national and international politics, which raise difficult moral questions. At the same time, our trust in political leaders who are entrusted with devising and implementing solutions to these issues is sorely tried by their words and actions. Under these circumstances, the problem of the relation between politics and morality takes on special urgency.” -This is the opening of “Politics and Morality,” a group authored paper edited by Igor Primoratz of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at The University of Melbourne. It was published in 2007.
Is there a different set of morals within politics? Is it too much to ask authorities to uphold fundamental ideals? Are the authorities above the common law?
Professional philosopher and founder of the The Atlas Society David Kelley thinks not, as he wrote in 2010: “A nation’s political trends are governed by several factors — the state of the economy, the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats, the attitudes of the media, and many others. But the fundamental factor is moral: the beliefs people have about right and wrong, good and bad; their aspirations for their lives; the virtues they practice and vices they denounce; the responsibilities and obligations they accept; the things they feel entitled to; the standards that govern their sense of fair play; the ideals that shape their sense of what is worthy.”
Clearly, morality in governmental leadership is complex. There must be some intriguing debates in The London School of Economics’ Philosophy, Morals and Politics class.
A leader is an individual who makes decisions for the greater good. Moral dilemmas come with that heavy responsibility, and demand different considerations and outcomes than if acting for one’s self only. A public leader may serve in an official role, but they are still a person with their own set of human experiences, thoughts, feelings, and a general sense of right and wrong. We hope.
A CHALLENGING CLIMATE
We’re coping with extreme scenarios in 2020, which came on top of a shaky reality of fake news, turning a blind eye to inequities and accountability issues. Here’s a look at the landscape before and during the calamity this year has brought.
Fake news is telling us what to think and feel. Mass propaganda campaigns manipulate the public on pandemic news and mask-wearing, on racism, on pre-election politics. News outlets struggle to be objective in their coverage; some thinly veil their biases. Tech companies walk the line of allowing ‘freedom of speech’ and policing content distributed on their platforms. Who would have imagined that the President of the United States would personally threaten to shut down Twitter in a tweet? This was his reaction when the company, in a response to combat fake news, tagged his post with a ‘fact check’ warning. Has the social media enabled schoolyard-like bullying? Are we willing to discern rhetoric from fact and fact from manufactured information?
The Moral Antidote: Investigate claims made in the news at FactCheck.org. Check the political leanings of news sources at AllSides.com. Track down facts behind claims of viral beliefs at Snopes.com. Visit Politifact.com, by The Poynter Institute of journalism, to see a True or False rating on claims made on social media.
Silence can be interpreted as compliance, approval or fear. By not denouncing white supremacy, the President of the United States appears neutral or possibly supportive of activities1. Another example of impotence in the face of wrong-doing is bystanders’ ignored pleas to Officer Tou Thoa to intervene on Officer Derek Chauvin’s suffocating Floyd. Do any of us stand a chance without the help of each other?
The Moral Antidote: We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to speak up in the face of injustice. Ask for assistance from others and call for more witnesses (even call the police to report the police). If it is a dangerous situation, flee for help. Capturing audio, video and photos are powerful influencers in the moment because they serve as evidence.
“When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions … When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”Statement issued on 30 July 2019 by Washington National Cathedral
Corrupt authorities use power to exploit. Police brutality seems at an all-time high with pre-emptive murder playing on repeat. It happened again in Atlanta, one week after Floyd’s death, resulting in one officer being fired and the police chief resigning.
Abuse of power is a long-standing ill of society, and it exists in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. The most shocking has been the proliferation and concealment of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church. How does corruption get found out? Through the courage of victims and witnesses willing to speak, and the ensuing publicity. We’ve seen it on Wall Street, in the church and in Minneapolis.
Systemic hidden abuse requires leaders to protect their own. Just as priests were reassigned to different dioceses within their home country, we recently learned how disciplined or dismissed police officers get jobs in other states. No tracking is in place for these transfers and, in some cases, very little training is required; barbers and plumbers have more training than police officers in some states.
Trump’s alleged abuse of power is so prolific that The Washington Post launched a podcast called, Can He Do That? For all the resources and attention the impeachment process received — and the revenge dismissals by Trump of those who testified against him — that effort focused only on one abuse of power. Can strength and conviction overcome the fear of retribution when bringing wrongdoing into the light?
The Moral Antidote: These secret abuses happen within organisations that are iron-clad to the outside world. Those organisations have a responsibility to create protocol for training, communication and performance reporting. They also should invest with communities at large to create safe channels of communication and advocacy to prevent violations and support victims and perpetrators. Abuses of any scale cannot be tolerated, but there must be a system in place to educate, communicate and support healthy operations.
Accountability goes both ways; no one is exempt. It’s fascinating to see how someone can go to great lengths to hold others accountable, yet not be accountable himself. President Trump has thrown blame on global collaborations to the point of threatening withdrawal from the World Health Organization, who he blames for spreading Covid-19 (it could be a moot threat), and the Paris Agreement on climate change (moot if he loses reelection). This is a man focuses on separation, not togetherness. Remember how he separated children from their parents while building a wall to separate the U.S. and Mexico? “Divide and conquer” is useful on the battlefield or when interrogating criminals, but three-year-olds and their mamas?
But he considers himself above reproach. Humility — and human trait — is absent. Even rather than answer questions on his statements or actions, President Trump uses press conferences to congratulate himself.
The latest accusation of Trump involves his over-classifying documents with the Government Accountability Office, ironically. Documents that normally would have been released to the public were deemed ‘classified’ to prevent them serving as evidence against him. In contrast, Scotland’s chief medical advisor broke lockdown by traveling and was dismissed. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lead advisor Dominic Cummings did the same — actually, covering a larger area — and it was casually brushed off by the PM. This divided the Tory party.
Double standards are common, unjust and immoral. Who holds accountable those who are meant to hold others accountable?
The Moral Antidote: Heads of state in democracies are elected representatives of the public; they are accountable to the public. In a republic, such as the U.S., there’s a “checks and balances” system of other branches of government to keep each true2, but when these fall short — as we’ve seen lately — the public’s voice must be raised louder. The public can show up to express delight or dismay by lifting their voices. Whether that’s a protest, writing to a representative, attending a council meeting, and voting, we must work to educate ourselves and actively participate. If not, we are no better than those who throw blame and make no personal effort.
DO ALL MORAL COMPASSES POINT NORTH?
A friend commented that nobody acts against their morals; they do not do something they believe is wrong. People do what they believe is right. Even terrorists, he said.
WHOA. I didn’t like the sound of that, but now, yes, I can understand that. So, maybe survival is not the common value that cuts across humanity? Suicide bombers, Kamikazi and humanitarian martyrs all choose to sacrifice themselves.
BUT, WAIT! There’s a difference: It is each person’s decision alone to make. The right to survival ought not to be made by others.
Politics is not a profession that encourages moral reflection or insight. ‘The ends justify the means’ is good enough for most practitioners. But every now and then, you see someone in politics who raises the questions that confront many of us at some point in our lives: Are we living a moral life? By ‘moral,’ I mean are we living with empathy, love and forgiveness for others? Are we encouraging the voice within that asks us to help more than hurt?”Carter Eskew, opinion columnist, The Washington Post (2014)
Morality’s comeback is led by the public. It’s already started — with protests calling for change, sharing opinions on social media, writing to the offices of local politicians, and daily discussions about the news. The only thing each of us controls is the choice of attitude and effort. It’s an active choice to:
Greet ignorance with curiosity.
Break silence with openness.
Approach each situation with an open heart, not a closed mind.
Our survival depends on it.
What we can do
It can feel like the system is too big and the problems too entrenched to do anything. These are big mountains we are climbing, but we’ll never know the magnificent view if we don’t take a step. It comes down to each of us to do what’s in our own power to act for good. Here are five things we can do starting today:
- Vote. Educate yourself on your local, regional and federal representatives by going to their websites to read their platforms. Speak up about what you want to see in your community by emailing their offices. Register to vote (U.S. | U.K.), then tell 10 friends to do the same. When election day comes, get to your polling place and cast your vote. Keep track that their words are matched by their actions.
- Complete the census. Make sure you are being counted so the truth about populations, lifestyle habits and beliefs are represented. This informs leaders and the media about the needs and preferences of its citizens.
2020 U.S. Census | Census 2021 England & Wales | Census 2021 Scotland
- Listen and share. Sharing thoughts, feelings and points of view with others goes a long way to learning, processing the goings-on, and synthesizing all the inputs to decide your stance and behaviour on matters; how you show up in the world. As many issues are politicised today, we risk further polarisation of views if we disconnect from each other. Rise above the “Us vs. Them” thinking.
- Speak up. If you witness an injustice, give the benefit of the doubt and ask for clarification. At best, the person may not realise how he or she comes across. If serious or dangerous, do call the authorities.
- Question yourself. Stay in the moment as you go about everyday tasks and conversations. Really think before speaking or acting. Ask yourself, Does this ring 100% true for me? Does it align with my values? Does this reflect who I wish to be?
- Ask for help or inspiration. Sometimes just expressing the frustration, sadness or anger in a voice recording, a handwritten journal, or a phone call can ease the burden. Other times, more is needed. Whether it’s a friend, a family member, a neighbour, a stranger, a phone helpline, a therapist, or a member of the clergy, they will be glad you did.
- Pray. For the things that seem too big, too out-of-reach or too complicated to affect, offer your positive intentions and thoughts to a higher energy. Prayers are always heard.
- Trump as a silent witness: While FactCheck.org dismantled Joe Biden’s claim that Donald Trump defended white supremacists, Trump reacted on Twitter to video footage showing alleged police misconduct of an elderly protester by accusing the man of pulling off a set-up. Trump’s statement that Floyd would be happy to hear about a good report on national employment was received as hollow and exploitative, and seems to demonstrate how out-of-touch he is with public sentiment (or reality).
Fans of The Apprentice remember season 4 winner Randal Pinkett, who is Black. He told Bloomberg Opinion Columnist Timothy L. O’Brien, “I had the benefit of not being just a contestant on ‘The Apprentice’ but having worked at the Trump Organization, too. I saw the utter and complete lack of not only racial diversity but ethnic and gender diversity as well. Donald’s blind spots block out anything that’s different than whatever he holds to be true. It also creates enormous blind spots for understanding other people’s points of view and empathy for how they live.” O’Brien’s column, “Why Trump Has Trouble Addressing Black Lives Matter,” was published on Friday.
- U.S. as a republic: The concept of bordered states in the U.S. was so each territory could tailor certain laws to reflect what the locals wished — within the guiding principles of The Constitution and its amendments. The idea was that people of like values formed communities. A republic, as the united states together are, is meant to have a small federal government so the states can govern according to their community mores. The federal government was conceived as a ‘checks and balances’ system so no single branch runs amok. The three branches are Legislative (makes laws), Executive (carries out laws) and Judicial (evaluates laws). The free press is considered the Fourth Estate because it serves as the reporter and recorder of history in the making and allows both the government and the public to comment on happenings. President Trump’s impeachment proceedings were not successful, though they did expose meaningful evidence.