Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Character Counts

I saw the movie "The Blind Side" for the first time over the weekend. There are many things I could write about it, but following on the heels of Memorial Day, I was most struck by a particular part of the movie.

The main character, Michael Ohr, has to write an English paper about Tennyson's poem "Charge of the Light Brigade." The poem describes a battle in the Crimean war where the miscommunication of an order led to a charge by British cavalry that resulted in many casualties. Michael focuses on the following stanza:
"Forward, the Light Brigade!" Was there a man dismay'd? Not tho' the soldier knew Some one had blunder'd. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Here is what Michael has to say about it: "Didn’t at least one of the six hundred guys think about giving up and joining with the other side? I mean, Valley of Death, that’s pretty salty stuff. That’s why courage is tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do? Sometimes you might not even know why you’re doing something. I mean, any fool can have courage. But honor, that’s the real reason you either do something or you don’t. It’s who you want to be. If you die trying for something important then you have both honor and courage and that’s pretty good. I think that’s what the writer was saying; that you should try for courage and hope for honor. And maybe even pray that the people telling you what to do have some, too."

Personally, I think Michael's piece is pretty "salty stuff." Courage and honor are values at the heart of the military. But Michael's question is an important one: when faced with an order we don't believe in, what do our actions say about us?

Now, I know I would have been a terrible soldier, precisely because I spend too much time asking "why," and respond to most "orders" with skeptical resistance. In contrast, soldiers are expected to follow orders, with the complementary expectations that officers give orders responsibly. They "try for courage, and hope for honor." Various scandals have made it plain, however, that neither condition is always met.

It's not as simple as Michael would like it to be, however. Social psychology research like the Milgrim experiment and Stanford prison study demonstrate how even "normal" participants can be convinced to respond cruelly to others, out of obedience (Milgrim) or group mentality (Stanford). In fact, these studies are frightening because of how easy it was to get participants to engage in inhumane behavior.

The take-home message, I think, is that we all have to work together to be vigilant against dynamics of  group identity, power, and authority that may not be...honorable. Checks and balances is one safeguard, as is education focused on moral development. For example, Kohlberg's stages of moral development suggest that, as people progress in moral development, they move away from just following the rules, to look at the intent, and ultimately a commitment to the principle of justice over and above law (which can be unjust). Even when it would be easier to just follow rules or orders, honor and courage demand that we follow our conscience. Character counts.

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