Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ethics and Integrity: When the Group Shuns Honest Debate

Ronald C. Arnett, in Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, has much to say on the subject of ethics and integrity.

Clarissa James (the future Ms. Megaton Man) and Stella Starlight (the See-Thru Girl and future Earth Mother) wait to register as new undergraduates at the University of Michigan in Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, February 1985).

Briefly, Buber advocates a “dialogical” balance between group loyalty or “relationship” on the one hand and truth-seeking or “principles” on the other. When group identification becomes total, behavior that is autocratic, insidious, underhanded, and unscrupulously retaliatory is not uncommon, even among groups of individuals ostensibly dedicated to the most high-minded principles. Here are some pertinent excerpts of Arnett discussing Buber's ideas:
When “party” becomes more important than the pursuit of truth, we have walked into the problem of group narcissism. When groups become intolerant of independent judgment, trouble is brewing for a communicative crisis. In short, problems arise when one group does not permit another to dissent or protest. […]

In a collective, “truth” become politicized. Such “truth” is rooted in a tradition of consensus held together by domination, false consciousness, and propaganda emphasizing the insecurity of life without the corporate entity (p. 84).

Both Buber and Kierkegaard saw the need for the single person to sometimes stand before a group or organization and refuse to submit, comply, or follow orders. […] For Buber, it is the responsible individual, not someone hiding within organization structures, that must bear the test of truth by sometimes taking a lonely stand that requires him or her to separate himself or herself from the crowd. […]

It is unfortunate, but many fail the test of truth, as they attempt to fulfill themselves through group allegiance (p. 85).

[W]hen loyalty to the group begins to service one’s own needs to the exclusion of others, a shift from relationship [group identification] to principles [truth-seeking] in community may be a necessary step (p. 97).

The essence of a lasting ethical community requires a conscious commitment to labeling and examining the shortcomings of a community. Shielding the community from scrutiny or criticism is not of long-term benefit to the organization. A community can only be ethical by listening closely to its critics (p. 99).

Many of us limit our own voices out of fear of reprisal. We may face very real consequences if we struggle for values and principles at odds with the power brokers. Some leaders become quite clever at short-cutting any process that might be critical of the community leadership. There are numerous ways to limit a voice in a community (p. 105).
Shunning has been used for centuries as a paradoxical technique of collectively disciplining a person […]. To ignore another person for whatever reason is to cease treating him or her as a human being and to begin responding to that individual as an object (p. 106).

[An ethical community is such] if dissent from the party line is encouraged. An ethical community needs to affirm the voice of the person both in and outside the power elite. […] A limitation must be imposed on the majority itself; it must not stifle opposition of any minority, however small its numbers or extreme its views, for unless dissenting voices can be heard today, tomorrow’s decisions will not be democratic ones. […]

Each of us has probably witnessed a “liberal” group that operates democratically in theory, but simultaneously does not permit dissent within its own community. Deviance from common views is difficult for even the best-intentioned community to encourage (p. 108).

There is a commonality between dialogue and democracy, but only if a democracy does not insist on conformity. Dissent must be permitted and recognized as vital for the community. As Buber stated, “in a truly living community of opinion, the common opinion must ever again be tested and renewed in genuine meetings; the ‘men who hold the same views’ must ever again loosen up one another’s views as they threaten to become encrusted, must ever again help one another to confront the changing reality in new, unprejudiced looking.” […] The protection of an idea or belief will only hurt a community in the long run. Opponents help us clarify our own opinions. If opposition is not permitted, a totalitarian atmosphere will reign and the beliefs of the ‘in’ group will atrophy without challenge. […]

We must be open to our adversaries even as we oppose them. It is that openness that will keep life in community vibrant and alive, rather than oppressive (p. 109).
 From Ronald C. Arnett, Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue (Carbondale and Ewardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986).