Friday, March 16, 2007

Honor and Honorable

Yesterday was the Ides of March. Anyone who has studied Latin or even looked at a list of Shakespeare’s plays will automatically word associate these words with Julius Caesar. There is first the historical figure whose murder in the Senate in 44 BCE for aspiring to become Dictator of Rome had the unintended consequence of doing exactly what the conspirators – Brutus, Cassius, and all the other “honorable men” – thought they were preventing.

And how do we know that the conspirators were “honorable”? Shakespeare tells us – or rather he has Marc Antony first praise the men of “honor” who saw a potential dictator in “great Caesar” and acted to preserve the people’s republic. In a eulogy that many once memorized, patiently, slowly, Marc Antony turns the semi-hostile, restive crowd against the poorly organized conspirators, who are forced to flee and eventually are defeated by the combined armies of Antony and Augustus.

While a longer reflection will be forthcoming on the subject of “honor” and what is honorable and not honorable, the coincidence of the Ides of March, Caesar and Marc Antony, and remarks by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about immorality warrant some comment.

As a noun, “honor has a dozen definitions in the on-line dictionary. But one must read down to the eighth entry to find the definition that goes to the self-generated interior set of principles by which we each judge and calibrate our relationship to the broader society. Put another way, to be honorable is to possess a “state of being” we are not afraid to reveal to others, to possess a psychic “comfort zone” with our existence.

The key to remaining “honorable” in one’s dealings with life has two elements. The first is to recognize that the principles that underpin your sense of what is honorable are not going to be replicated by the person sanding or sitting next o you. By extension, it also means that the most one can claim is that your principles are best for you and hers are best for her. There is no objective scale for comparing and deciding that my sense of Honor is superior or inferior to yours.

Second, as a function of human nature and analysis, the sense of that within that is “honorable” must be evolving and becoming nuanced in response to accumulated experiences. Failure to allow for peripheral modifications – especially if psychic energy is concentrated on actively suppressing changes that would help maintain a correlation between inner and outer perceptions – undermines an important aspect of self-recognition or, colloquially speaking, let’s us look at our reflection in a mirror every morning.

This brings me to the main theme, one found in Shakespeare but first attributed to Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

As it so happened on this Ides of March, newspaper op-ed pages were still printing letters decrying remarks made three days earlier during a telephone interview given by General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about immoral sexual behavior in the armed forces. Legislation was re-introduced in mid-February in Congress to abolish the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy. This statute formally allows homosexuals to serve in the U.S. military if they conceal their sexual orientation and refrain from homosexual relations. The policy also forbids commanders from asking about a soldier’s sexual orientation.

Pace affirmed his support of the current policy under which homosexuals are serving in the U.S. military – estimates run as high as high as 65,000 in uniform. He then went on to give his personal view that any sexual intimacy not between husband and wife and male-female – whether heterosexual or homosexual – is immoral behavior. Furthermore, the military cannot be seen to tolerate or in any fashion condone such behavior

Pace’s statements about his personal beliefs quickly overshadowed the question of whether current policy should be changed. Since “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” began in 1993, nearly 11,000 service members have been administratively discharged for affirming their homosexuality.
Cynical Pentagon critics note that in the policy’s first few years, on average more than 1,000 men and women were discharged each year for “coming out” or “being outed.” The number removed from military service for this reason was a bit higher than in 2001 when more than 1,200 were discharged. But since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the annual number has fallen to a little more than 610. The stress on troops from repeated tours of duty, the inability of the Army National Guard and Reserves to meet recruitment goals, and projections of officer shortages in coming years, all are cited as the reason for the fall in administrative discharges for “immoral” conduct.

Slightly less cynical critics point where the Chairman’s mixing of public policy and personal stance inevitably leads:

-tolerating – knowing of but not doing anything to halt – sexual misconduct – is tantamount to condoning such behavior and undercuts good order and discipline

-those who condone immoral acts by refusing to punish immorality are somehow tainted by their refusal to act – with the implications that they too, should be disciplined if not also discharged;

-discharging all who engage in immoral acts or passively condone such acts will achieve – given human nature – a variation on the old Army recruiting slogan: “A Marine Corps of One.”

The Chairman is entitled to his personal views as they are an integral part of his sense of “honor” and of being honorable. Unfortunately, when the society in which he is a prominent public official has chosen to expand its acceptance of behaviors by redefining or refining general notions of “the honorable” that exceed his ability to assimilate with his principles, he should decline to offer his own view until he leaves public life.

It is most unfortunate that the question of what constitutes honor and how one develops a sense of the honorable has been conflated by the public’s ambivalence toward all things sexual. At root the challenge is to find current sources of and storage space for those value patterns that define the primary collective and individual parameters that undergird “honor.”

As the Brits say in a related context, “Be upstanding!”


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