When I was in business school getting my MBA, the only course in which I received less than the top grade was one called “Negotiation and Conflict Resolution” because I took a position that there are some issues of principle which are non-negotiable. My viewpoint appears quaint and old fashioned, if not outright naïve, to much of the world and to most of those with whom I work. My lack of moral flexibility is one of the reasons I ultimately decided not to pursue a much more lucrative opportunity in the business of healthcare, and to stick with taking care of sick people. It’s also the reason I have never considered a career in politics, much as I recognize that it’s the arena where one person’s efforts can sometimes produce some of the greatest gains.
Having grown up during the Vietnam era, I’m well familiar with the story of Hubert Humphrey, a fundamentally decent man, well intentioned and eminently likable, but one who fell victim to galloping ambition. Despite his tragic end, I thought the way everyone fell in love with him after his fatal diagnosis was ludicrous. The two great tests of men in public life during that time – the McCarthy era and Vietnam – gave Humphrey failing grades in both. On our shores, as well as in many parts of the world, when it comes to moral lapses in keepers of the public trust, we tend to forget with a frequency suggesting senility. While many suggest this forgiveness is a virtue, I feel that we have not only a right but a responsibility to remain intransigent in the defense of ideals.
This is why we still honor people like Lincoln and Gandhi who stuck with their beliefs against desperate odds, and scorn the Neville Chamberlains of the world. Young people tend to see the world much in black and white. However, as we grow older, most of us develop the capacity of accepting indecency with equanimity. We accept a little corruption in everyone, and we find the righteous rage of someone like Senator Wayne Morris, who paid for his early opposition to the Vietnam War with his political career, unsettling at best. We as Americans do not like to be unsettled.
The danger in choosing the quiet acceptance of moral ambiguity in our leaders should by now be obvious. While we may find fewer villains, we also lack in leaders we wish to follow and emulate. If as a people we are incapable of cherishing the notion that some lines cannot be crossed, we can no longer retain a sense of purpose as a country.
Of course, this national complacency simply reflects the ease with which we erase moral boundaries in our own lives. How can we sustain moral outrage when we readily accept dishonesty in our own circles? When we overlook backstabbing in our workplace among our colleagues? When we condone deception and lies in our business practices? If we do not take a stand against what we perceive as indecent behavior among those with whom we associate, how can we expect our children to do any differently as they grow up?
None of us are saints, and we all make mistakes. However, we all need to strive to be better, to accept responsibility for our failures, and to learn from our missteps. We need to treat each other with kindness, but demand from others the same kind of decency we offer to those with whom we cross paths.