Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rampant Dishonesty

Corruption is in the news A Massachusetts state senator recently was forced to resign after being accused of publicly groping several women. State Representative Diane Wilkerson had to resign after she was photographed accepting money for procuring a liquor license. The Speaker of the House is under heavy suspicion of corrupt practices. One of our local state representatives almost lost his recent reelection to a last-minute challenger because of personal conduct and financial transactions that appeared corrupt to many voters.

These are merely some examples of political corruption in Massachusetts and in Worcester. I do not have space to document pervasive corruption across the nation.

We have become accustomed to widespread public dishonesty but now a national survey shows that significant numbers of young people steal and lie. Dishonesty is no longer limited to business transactions or to politics. "In the past year, 30% of US high school students have stolen from a store and 64% had cheated on a test according to a new, large-scale survey..." Have you talked to your son or daughter about dishonesty lately?

Widespread dishonesty among young people is no doubt encouraged by the blatant corruption of our elected officials and the pervasive dishonesty in business that has brought our economy to the brink of collapse. If our political leaders as well as the business people who are "successful" -- who drive BMW’s up to their trophy homes -- get ahead by cutting corners, our young people will, of course, do the same.

Our nation does not only face the possibility of economic collapse; much more seriously, we are losing our moral standards. We are becoming a nation of liars, of thieves and petty chiselers.

What has happened to us?

Morality is anchored in personal relations. Lying to or stealing from persons you know seriously affects relationships. If your neighbors no longer trust you, your life loses security and comfort. If the people in your neighborhood think of you as untrustworthy, your place in the community changes for the worse. Dishonesty within the family creates serious problems.

But, in our world, we have fewer and fewer relationships within our immediate locality. Shoplifters do not steal from the local store whose owner may be a neighbor. They steal from an international corporation with stores not only in the US but all over the globe. The employer you lie to about being sick when you take a day off to do your Christmas shopping may have its headquarters in some foreign country. The businesses we may be tempted to steal from -- the drugstore or the insurance company – are vast international corporate giants. Your relationship to your employer is similarly impersonal. You have no personal relationship to the people you work for. You are not working for any human being but for an impersonal bureaucracy designed to put money in the pockets of its stockholders.

The government has, similarly, become large, impersonal, and distant. Local programs in Worcester are largely financed by the state of Massachusetts and the income tax it collects, as well as by the federal government and the taxes it takes from us. The city has little money of its own and little say-so over what happens here. Like businesses, the government has moved away and is no longer under our control. We may know some city politicians but they have very limited powers. Al they control is fixing roads and sidewalks.

Personal integrity has shrunk because it matters only in very limited contexts. It matters within the family, it matters with your friends. Many people in cities do not know their neighbors; many do not know their children's teachers. With a few exceptions we do not know who owns the local stores. The sales people we deal with, come and go.

Improved transportation has made a lot of difference. People move everywhere and rarely die anywhere either the place where they were born. A few years ago my neighbor died in her 80s in the house in which she was born. There are not many people like that left in America. Most of us are from “somewhere else.” Frequent moves disrupt personal connections between neighbors.

It is not enough to bemoan how footloose we have become and how impersonal life in our cities is today. Within limits, we can make efforts to know our neighbors, to engage in community improvement projects, to know who lives near us and to establish personal relations with them. Some neighborhoods managed to organize themselves to try to deal with local problems, to organize a crime watch, to build a park or playground. Most neighborhoods no longer do that. We do not know the people living close to us.

Efforts to maintain human relations in one's community are one way of maintaining our moral standards. It is easy to cheat and to deceive a global corporation because they are things; they are not human beings. But in relations to real human beings who live close to us, we find ourselves hesitating to practice deceit and dishonesty. It is more difficult to look in the face of the persons you have defrauded. Our moral obligations to our neighbors, like family members, are very powerful.

We should respond to reports of dishonesty from all quarters by redoubling our efforts to maintain human communities. For many city dwellers, their neighbors are as distant as the strangers on the bus. Go out and meet your neighbors; if there are problems you can try to tackle them together You can improve your neighborhood, get it cleaned up, make it more livable. Only a place where people know one another and work together for common goals will support a common morality.