"Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike"
- Theodore Roosevelt
Because this blog is focused on “all things ideological”, I was drawn to this article in the Boston Globe. The author credits Scandinavian character for withstanding the shortcomings of democratic socialism. Although he later credits another ideology - free market capitalism - as giving that character an opportunity to flourish, it raises the questions of how much of our behavior is attributable to our belief systems, and how much to out character.
Judging by the current political landscape in the U.S., there's no easy answer to that. A seemingly non-ideological figure, Donald Trump, has just wrapped up the Republican nomination by defeating a very ideological competitor, Ted Cruz. Trump seems to be lacking in both character AND ideology, although a case can certainly be made for his devotion to the ideology of free market capitalism. But neither his ideology nor his character seem to be adequate explanations for his popularity.
If we focus just on character side for a moment, it raises a number of questions: 1) Why hasn’t the outright lying of Trump had the negative consequences (rejection) we might expect? Trump's lies about New Jersey Muslims “cheering” when the Twin Towers were attacked, immigrant criminality, and the senior Cruz’s supposed relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald - to name just a few - did not cost him. 2) What is the relationship today between having an honorable character and being in a position to influence the world in a powerful way? 3) Have we devalued character to the point where our children (as well as the rest of us) lack the support we need to develop it in the first place?
Character development is not meant to be easy. Most of us associate it with challenging but worthwhile experiences that shape us in a positive way. During childhood, parents hope their children appreciate the value of discipline by taking on things such as learning to play an instrument really well, seeing the good results that happen when they do their homework, and enjoying the fruits of their hard work when they play on a school sports team. They hope they learn honesty when they do something dishonest and have to suffer a consequence that isn’t too shaming. Building character traits such as discipline and honesty comes from having the opportunity to make something of our life experiences, and then doing so.
Yet society seems to be valuing character development less than it has in the past or, even if it's still given plenty of lip service. We don’t seem to recognize how many of the actions we take actually undercut character development. One example is the way things have changed since schools and private education organizations have adopted a business model for how they structure, deliver, and talk about their 'product'. Business models emphasize results, and more often than not that means an inordinate amount of attention paid to profits - and much less focus on how a person gets to his or her goals. We’ve had business models since the dawn of history, but there are consequences to ‘stretching’ any model’s usefulness too far. If students view themselves as 'customers', the expectation will be that if since they paid for their education, they are entitled to the product at the end: the degree or certification they seek. They expect to have to put in the time, but the degree at the end is what matters most. This model pays lip service to the hard work and discipline that used to be highly valued and strongly associated with getting a degree. It certainly hasn't eliminated those factors altogether. But it does make them less influential if there is little or no possibility of a student failing because they see themselves as consumers of education rather than experiencers of it. One dramatic consequence to stretching the business model into arenas such as education has been the rise in college level plagiarism.
Although increases in plagiarism can be attributed in part to the ease in which technology makes this possible, what stands out in many instances is that plagiarizing students often fail to realize they’ve done anything inappropriate. While consciously cheating seems a much worse infraction than inadvertently doing so, it’s important to recognize an important question here: Why is the awareness that plagiarism is inappropriate so much in the background for so many students? Why is there no expectation that an assignment should automatically involve the hard work of finding your own words, and automatically require you to assume the risk that comes with presenting your own thinking? If an emphasis on results becomes overly dominant, the process of how one gets those results matters less and less. If we want character building in our world, we have to encourage the risk taking, the possibility of failure, the discipline and the resilience necessary to transform our experiences much more than we currently do.
Ideologies try to develop character through prescriptive practices. You’ll be moral if you follow the 10 commandments. Justice will flow automatically if you adopt a system of democratic socialism. Many individuals considered to be 'people of character' attribute that compliment to their ideological foundation. But crediting ideologies for character development ignores all the people who develop character without any ideological bent whatsoever. It also ignores the countless examples of corrupt ideological leaders who launder money, are sexual predators, and commit violent crimes in the name on behalf of their ideological beliefs. What really determines whether a person becomes someone of strong character is whether he or she can learn from experience and find the courage and motivation to craft a more viable response to their challenging circumstances the next time they face them. It is not necessary to embed one's life inside an ideology for this to happen.
We seem to be at sea about character. Is it because we can’t see ‘immediate results’ from being honorable, honest, and/or disciplined? Competition, appetite, and a desire to be noticed seem to take a much higher priority in most people's lives. We look at Trump lying with impunity and still winning and conclude that character is not really what's needed to succeed in life. Or we delude ourselves that the lies being told reflect character, and mistakenly equate Trump's verbal bluster and shamelessness to an ability to "tell it like it is"... even if the story he tells changes when he moves from one environment to the next. We don't seem to have a compass that lets us distinguish between real character and the sound of it wrapped in a carefully crafted image. How did this happen?
That's a question to hold and discuss with others, because it's undoubtedly reflective of something multi-causal, complex, and not always immediately apparent. One part of that reflection I'll address here, however, is to point out how confused we are about what we consider to be 'powerful'. Increasingly, we see the self-centered, pick-a-fight-at-every-turn, bullying attitude of someone like Trump as powerful. But bullies only look powerful when we ourselves are afraid. When we feel disempowered, angry about being lied to, manipulated, and sunk by the daily despair of our lives the only viable option seems to be to lash out in fury and attach our hopes to charismatic authorities who seem to ‘get it’. We look for power outwardly instead of cultivating it inside ourselves. Character development looks futile when the possibility of a quick fix provided provided by someone else seems imminent.
There are plenty of other factors worth exploring when looking at why character seems so devalued in contemporary society. The lack of economic opportunity and the flow-on effects of rampant individualism come to mind, and I've no doubt you the reader can think of others.
But this much is clear: if the development of character is less valued than it’s been in the past, that’s not because people of strong character can’t still have a profound impact on society. They can. They do. The pictures accompanying this post are testimony to that. Our task is to remember this, and to find ways to value it more in how we live our daily lives and how we interact with the communities we come in contact with - particularly the ones who have ideas different from our own.