Wednesday, January 9, 2013

To Live by the Sword: Integrity

According to Webster, the word “integrity” comes from the Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer, meaning “entire.”
Integrity is a state of being complete or undivided, of soundness, of incorruptibility. We talk of the structural integrity of a building, the water-tight integrity of a ship, and the moral integrity of a human being.
For the human, integrity means a strictly consistent adherence to a moral code. No exceptions. No wiggle room.
I think it may be possible to boil integrity down to three things:
1.     Tell the truth
2.     Keep your word
3.     Take responsibility for your actions
If you think about it, whenever things really go to hell, it’s because one or more people have violated one or more of these three principles.
Integrity may not be easy.
But it really is very simple
There’s a story I like to share with my students , as an example, and I’ll share it with you now. It’s reputed to be a true story, but I don’t know for certain that it is. If it isn’t, it ought to be.  It goes like this:
Shortly after the end of WWII, there is an emergency room physician – a Jewish survivor of Dachau – on duty when two patients are brought in, victims of a horrific traffic accident. The man isn’t too badly hurt, but the young son is, and is unlikely to survive. The doctor notices, on the father’s arm, a tattoo indicating his SS blood group. Calming the father as best he can the doctor moves on to treat the boy. After heroic effort, the doctor manages to defy the odds and amaze everyone by pulling the boy through.  He then reports the good news to the father who is effusive with tears of gratitude.  “By the way,” says the doctor, “I noticed your tattoo. I have one, too.”  He rolls up his sleeve and shows the former SS man his prisoner number.   The father is quite stunned.  “To be honest,” he tells the doctor, “if positions were reversed, I don’t know that I could or would do what you just did.”   “Well, you see,” replies the doctor, “that’s the difference between you and me.”

Once upon a time, all fencing was "classical" fencing.
Everyone knew what the rules meant, everyone knew what proper fencing was, and what correct officiating was. This agreement included the fencers’ code of conduct, on and off the strip.
How did fencing become the abominable, unrecognizable mess that it is now?
No mystery there. Refer to the above three item list.
First, people began to make exceptions. Exceptions for team-mates. Exceptions for people they “liked” – or for people by whom they wanted to be “liked.” Exceptions for “champions” or up-and-comer’s. They began to tolerate ungentlemanly shows of narcissism.  They began to lower standards of technique accepting something incorrect as “good enough.” And some people hit that slippery slope with their skis and raced to the bottom, as exemplified by the “flick.”  
Both the foil and the epee are thrusting-only weapons. A thrust is a forward linear action with the point.   The "flick" is not a forward linear action with the point. A "flick" is a whipping of the blade in such a manner that the flexibility of the blade coupled with the point-heavy electric barrel causes the point to curve around the opponent’s defense and slap the button against the target.
Therefore, the “flick” is not a thrust.
And therefore, “flick” is, in fact, cheating.   The fact that it can “make the light go off” is a defect of the scoring apparatus, not a virtue of the technique.
But for reasons such as those mentioned above, the “flick” began to be tolerated. Then accepted.  Because if enough people cheat, it doesn’t seem like cheating anymore.
But it is.
If there really is a principle involved, things are either black or white. There are no grey areas. You can’t be "a little bit" dead or "sort of" pregnant.  A ship is not seaworthy merely because the total area of its hull exceeds the total area of its holes. You can’t breathe for only 22 hours a day and not breathe for the other 2 hours. You have to breathe all the time because your physical survival depends on that consistent behavior. Likewise, you can’t have integrity only part of the time, because your spiritual survival depends on morally consistent behavior, too.
Like the other important lessons of the sword, this is one you can take home from the salle.
Compare and contrast, if you will, two Presidential administrations:
During the GW Bush Presidency large numbers of people (most of whom self-describe as liberal democrats) rightly condemned “Dubya” for unconscionable violations of the US Constitution, and International law. They wailed and bemoaned such things as the “Patriot” Act, and aggressive, “pre-emptive” war based on palpable lies, and the use of torture.
In 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency largely because he promised to be the antidote to 8 years of George Bush and to restore the rule of law – a promise that evaporated as soon as the new President lowered his hand after taking the oath of office.
In the ensuing 4 years, President Obama maintained and even expanded the most egregious Bush policies, and introduced a few of his own. He claims, for example, to have the lawful authority to order the murder of any person anywhere in the world (including Americans here at home) for secret reasons of his own, unreviewable by any court of law.  He also claims the power to order the military to “arrest” any person in the United States (including American citizens) whom he suspects of “terrorism” and hold them in “indefinite detention” without having been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime, and with no recourse to due process, no legal representation, no habeus corpus.
And yet, the very “liberal democrats” who were champions of the Constitution when Republican George Bush was in office, are eerily silent now that the Bill of Rights is being shredded by one of their own team-mates. Someone they “like.” Or want to be “liked” by…
While I find many of the principles that Republicans espouse to be utterly detestable, I must at least acknowledge that they are consistent. What the Republicans lauded George Bush for doing, they also – even if grudgingly – laud Barack Obama for doing.
The Democrats, however, seem to change principles as easily as I change shirts, which suggests to me that they really have none at all.

Please don’t take this example to mean that I am endorsing the Republican Party. I’d as soon become an Olympic fencing coach. 
The subject is integrity. 
I regret that American politics affords us such excellent negative examples.


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