Originally Published: August 11, 2018 7:56 p.m.
How did humankind evolve from a loosely connected band of primitive hominids whose mission in life was merely to survive, to citizens of the multi-faceted, complex society we live in today?
Obviously, it didn’t happen in one giant leap, but in slow, progressive steps: family, kin-group, tribe, tribal partners, shared market-places, towns, skill-based guilds, cities, countries, bi-lateral and multi-country alliances. At each step, the one indispensable ingredient has been agreement on what kind of behavior will be tolerated from the members of the organized social unit.
Each of the world’s great religions upholds and reinforces behavioral agreements that make long-term communal social life possible. Judaism gave humanity the Ten Commandments, Christianity the Sermon on the Mount, Hinduism the Yama-Niyama (Do’s and Don’ts) of Patanjali, and Islam the code of conduct found throughout the Quran (not to be confused with terrorist extremism).
Writ large in these religious doctrines is the wisdom every caring parent quickly arrives at. After ensuring survival, their next most important obligation to their children is to teach them the strategies that will ensure their inclusion in the communal life of their society. In short, each of us must learn to behave.
Civilized behavior can be a delicate balance between collaborating with or accommodating others and sticking up for oneself against individuals who don’t buy into accepted norms of behavior or are having a momentary lapse. Acting out of a reasonable level of respect for others, as opposed to fear or ulterior motives, requires first granting yourself a personal dignity that deserves fair treatment. Opposing the bad behavior of others becomes a logical corollary of behaving well yourself.
Of course, we all have disagreeable moments when we rebel against social norms. Teenagers are well known for this kind of rebellion and it may make an occasional appearance in later years. But there’s no advantage in adopting it as a consistent mode of life. A cohesive society depends on self-centered impulses being redirected to reach positive individual, family, and — hopefully — community goals.
Even when we approve of the policies of elected and appointed leaders, ignoring what is normally considered bad behavior by them is a disquieting if not dangerous trend. Just as good parents step in to correct behavior for the sake of their child’s ultimate well-being, we should call out and reject behavior that undermines the basic principles we agree on as members of a civilized society. Surely, we agree that no responsible citizens, no less national leaders, should:
• Lie about things they’ve done — or have neglected to do;
• Lie about other people’s words or actions;
• Call people they don’t like names and try to turn others against them;
• Blame other people for outcomes that, in fact, they are responsible for;
• Disrespect other people’s personal and/or expert opinions; and,
• Neglect people suffering due to natural disaster or man-made circumstances.
When we ignore the basics of good behavior, we pave the way for more elaborate anti-social schemes, such as spending money collected for charity for private purposes, using bribery to cover up scandals that threaten political ambitions, or allowing foreign powers to patronize government officials’ privately owned, for-profit businesses with the goal of influencing U.S. national policy.
There’s the old excuse every child tries at least once: “But everybody does it, why can’t I?!” That some leaders choose to abandon agreed-upon values doesn’t justify normalizing rebellion against our most basic social contracts. Fellow citizens raising middle fingers to reporters and TV cameras at a political rally is an unfortunate sign: common decency, hard-won over the course of our social progress, is under threat.
Alexandra is a past-president of Prescott Area Leadership and member of the board of Boys to Men. She and her husband have lived in Prescott for 11 years. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.