Integrity, Truth, and Freedom
One of the hardest transitions in childhood is feeling compelled to change one’s attitudes and behaviors to fit in with one’s friends. Before this point younger children are more self-centered and oblivious to the need to deal with differences. Then comes the day when the group of friends develops an identity and begins to expect everyone in the group to conform. The group develops a sense of “we” and “they.” The group rejects them and protects us. The group members must conform to the group norms or be teased, bullied, or finally rejected by the group.
Of course, society does this too. Gender roles have made gender non-conforming folks feel threatened. Attitudes about loyalty to the state, respect for authority, the duty to perform military service, participation in voting, paying taxes, and other behaviors support the social system. The society has norms and expectations that can be oppressive. White supremacy culture is an intricately woven system of norms and expectations that oppress people of color and resist its patterns being exposed.
The pressure for people to conform to an external social system creates an inner conflict for people who do not fit or conform to the social expectations. If my gender deviates from the appearance of my body, my skin color deviates from the social norm, my speech patterns deviate from the normative dialect, my sensory-motor response deviates from the neural-typical, there is inner tension and inner struggle. If I am who I know myself to be and behave that way in public without adapting who or what I am to the social expectation, I may be harmed in some way.
I recently read an article in the New York Times about a disturbing American political trend driven by the White House. The President demands absolute loyalty. What he says is what he expects Republican Senators and Representatives to say and do. There is no room for the Republican congressional members to express publicly, even privately, their own ideas that may differ from the President. Any breaking ranks is severely punished with angry tweets, threats, and agitation from the loyal base that will translate into a primary challenge. The President has been amazingly effective in limiting Republican criticism except in rare moments when he steps outside what even Republican leadership will allow.
Many Unitarian Universalists know this pressure to conform theologically. They grow up in a church saying creeds they initially don’t think much about. They are belief statements they may not understand. Then they take a biology class and learn how babies are made or a science class and learn about the dinosaurs or the Big Bang. A 6,000 year old earth or the immaculate conception as an article of faith to be believed without question can create some cognitive dissonance. The early Unitarians had that experience as they considered the belief in the Trinity that has weak evidence in the Bible and even weaker evidence applying scientific rational thought of the Enlightenment era. God men are wonderful stories and mythology but to claim it as fact can create an inner conflict of beliefs and values.
When people are forced by social pressure to conform their insides to outer expectations something very important is lost. As the story, “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” puts it in the mouth of the child, what is lost in the process is the truth. What is at stake is personal integrity.
We have seen a systematic attack on truth over the years that has come to a head with its denial as “fake news.” The denial is grounded in a subjective approach to truth that has roots in the post-modernism. The deconstruction of truth claims to reveal their subjective nature unfortunately has the side effect of undermining a common basis of shared social reality. If we can’t agree about the facts, what is real, and what is true and false, it undermines the basis of even discussing our differences.
I hadn’t realized how critical it is for our society to have a shared sense of what is true so we can hold our leaders to account. The rule of law depends on us living and dying by a common set of rules based it fact-based truth. If the President violates the law he should be held accountable. And it is true that society can be biased in harmful ways that need to be confronted and changed. The more we can agree on a common reality the better.
To address abuse of power and social harm, we need integrity, truth and freedom. One of the great freedoms we enjoy in this country is the freedom to believe and to speak truth. Whether that is our gender or sexual identity or our personal faith or lack of faith or witnessing to the truth society wishes to overlook and suppress, our integrity requires such freedom.
As we begin a New Year, let us make a commitment to integrity, truth and freedom. Integrity requires freedom if we want to protect one of the most important cornerstones of democracy.