This piece was published as an op/ed in early April, 2020.
It was an unhappy experience I had some years ago that got me into thinking about how people can have more than one personality, can have different values and rules in different parts of their lives.
I was involved with what I regarded as a first-rate institution, run by people with whom I had trusting personal relationships. After a couple of years, there came the shock: through those “good” people, the institution dealt with me in a creepy, dishonest way.
As hurtful was that treatment, what hurt the most was that people whose integrity I had come to trust acted in a way that was totally without integrity.
Some wise people in my life helped me to understand something that made me a bit less bewildered by the betrayal I’d experienced. People in organizations, they explained, tend to behave in ways dictated by the expectations and requirements of the organization. In their organizational lives, they can act as if they’re a different person from who they are in their private lives.
That brought to my mind a creepy image I’d come across in my studies of what happened in Nazi Germany: it was an image of how some of the German officers who operated the death camps would go home — from their day’s work of murdering families — and be “good family men” in how they related to their wives and children.
(And, as a regular reader of biographies, I’ve also noted that the very opposite can also happen: some people who were famous for being benign humanitarians in the wider world were also abusive of their spouses and children at home.)
So it seems that it’s possible for people to embody different ways of being in the world—depending on the context. Like:
- one “module” for how to be in intimate relationships,
- one for how to act in public,
- one for being a cog in the organizational machine.
(And then in these times I’ve been particularly interested in how some people can function in the political realm according to a whole different set of rules and values than they apply in the rest of their lives, e.g. as members of neighborhoods and communities and churches.)
Trying to figure out how that could work, I began to imagine that — somehow — the human psyche can be composed of some sort of “modules,” as if people are capable of entering a variety of “states,” of booting up to different learned programs, following different sets of rules, of embodying different personalities or ways of being –all of which are part of who they are, but also can be in serious disharmony with each other.
So we can have family men who understand the value of love, who can also then walk over to the concentration camp and participate in acts of cruelty so extreme that 75 years later they still darken our image of humanity and its civilization.
I still find it a puzzle.
But however it is that people can become contradictory things in different realms of their lives, the result is a kind of brokenness. And that brokenness is particularly problematic when the contradiction concerns basic morality and values.
Such brokenness contrasts with the kind of Wholeness our culture calls walking the talk. That’s the wholeness of integrity: “walking the talk” means a consistent commitment to certain values (the talk), leading reliably to certain ways of acting (the walk).
For people to embrace a political force, for example, that works blatantly against their claimed values is a profound example of a failure to walk the talk.
The impact of that brokenness, in turn, seems consistently to be advancing brokenness in our world. It is not coincidence that, in the instances cited here, the sight of good people supporting an evil force in the realm of power takes such broken forms as
- acting dishonorably and dishonestly with regard to an employee (who was also a friend); or
- moving innocent people along to their agonized deaths on an industrial scale; or
- people who seem to know what goodness is abusing those closest to them; or — in America today –
- supporting a political force that uses its power to assault the constitutional order of the United States and to trample on the most basic of Christian values.
In every case, the brokenness of not walking the talk makes the world a more broken place in ways that have traditionally been regarded as the work of evil.
A whole group of Americans could make America more Whole if they would walk their talk in their political life. Much that’s broken in America today could be healed if they would bring to their participation in American politics the spirit called for by real American patriotism (which has traditionally involved honoring the spirit of the Constitution) and by real Christian values (acting in harmony with the Golden Rule, and with “love thy neighbor and thine enemies”).
Less of the Brokenness of incompatible modules, and more of the Wholeness of Integrity.