Virtue. Character. Integrity. Words that cultures around the world and through history have described as the aspirational qualities to earn and strive for in our lives.
2017 was as tumultuous a year as 2016, as the rocky social discourse we now live in seemingly continues to intensify. Yet to me, the most noticeable new development in that trend this year was how we gradually saw a rapider disintegration of public trust in politics, media, and our public square in general.
We saw General Michael Flynn, a respected General who served and protected our country honorably for decades, plead guilty to lying to the FBI.
We saw the #MeToo campaign, with many previously long-respected and admired figures in media, Hollywood, and politics revealed to be engaged in horrifying practices and abuses of power.
We saw the seriously disturbing allegations unveiled regarding Roy Moore, who had built his career on piety.
We witnessed a torrent of hyperbole come from leaders on both sides of the aisle.
On the left, for example, there was Kathy Griffin’s disgusting skit and fear mongering the GOP policy efforts on healthcare reform, taxes, and net neutrality, as literally causing people to die.
On the right, some conspiracy theories have developed a life of their own and collapsed into an incomprehensible singularity universe within themselves.
We saw even some of our nation’s most trusted institutions, ranging from the Department of Justice to our court system, from the national media to the FBI, all questioned.
The Founding Fathers created our form of government to structurally withstand what they believed to be humanity’s inherent evils, abuses, and ambition. Nonetheless, such a safety grid was not meant to allow us to become accustomed to an excess of moral corruption, thinking that our system would protect us from the societal consequences.
John Adams articulated this sentiment in 1798 to the Massachusetts Militia when he said “[o]ur Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
However character is also very difficult to accurately ascertain and this year we have seen enough “virtue-signaling,” likely a portion of it perhaps hypocritical, to make one shake their head as well.
While there are many cases where a person’s character at that time is relatively determinable, also in many situations the facts are unclear and stories only hearsay without evidence.
Furthermore, none of us is perfect and infallible despite the striving many of us make towards that goal.
Yet after this year it is undeniable that the state of character in the public square is in serious trouble and in need of a reawakening.
For much of American history, character was built through one’s family, community, and institutions.
In recent decades we’ve seen all three begin to unravel. Families are cracking apart. Communities are no longer as tight-knit as they used to be, with a decline in public festivals, rites, and bonding, and local organizations.
Our institutions have also changed dramatically, as previously essential character-refining groups such as churches, youth clubs, schools, and fraternal associations have all seen a remarkable waning.
Many of the institutions that do remain, such as schools and higher education, have also experienced a polarizing transformation in discourse that is an extraordinary complex issue within itself.
All this sounds tragic and terrible. Yet the fact that we also live in perhaps the most prosperous, peaceful, and technologically-advanced time in human history makes one also wonder what’s the point of character anyway?
The point of character is multifold. Beyond giving respect to our Creator, it helps us all live in a better society that is more fulfilling and individually wholesome.
When we can trust our institutions, trust our public figures, and trust one another in our communities, we prevent the inevitable regression from a vacuum of virtue as well as protect our progress.
The road up from our current state of affairs is complex and difficult. It is more than just a return to the way things were, as that may be impossible and even undesirable given how our society has been transformed by developments such as technology.
Policy proposals for reigniting character in the public square in the 21st century will undoubtedly come on the local, state, and federal levels as public clamor and outrage grows. In the meantime, perhaps the best that can be done is to take a moment to reflect on our own lives and the kind of approach we want to put forward in the world.