I’ve never been particularly keen on celebrating my birthday so had hoped it would slip quietly by this past week, but instead found myself at a good friend’s house one evening where she made it abundantly clear she wasn’t letting the occasion pass. Knowing I don’t tolerate gluten well, and not being overly fond of gluten-free baked goods herself, she playfully substituted a birthday cucumber for a birthday cake, complete with a candle poked through its prickly skin for me to blow out. Blowing out the candle had to wait, of course, until after she sang me happy birthday not only in English, but also in Dutch, of all languages. She’s got a great sense of humor, and an exquisite voice.
Later on she mentioned she’d read my recent post on Activism and Integrity and enjoyed it. The feedback I’ve received from the post inspired me to reflect further on the topic of integrity, on the agreement between people’s values and their behavior. I’ve long believed that people’s behavior is always a perfect representation of their values, and if the values their lifestyle advertises are different from those they claim to espouse then either they’re mistaken about what their values really are or they’re lying. When choices must be made – and indeed we have to make them all the time – we weigh our many and sometimes conflicting values against one another, and in the end we bow to those that are strongest.
In deciding whether to attend a climate action rally, for instance, I weigh the benefits of professional networking, sharing ideas and perhaps strategizing about how to stop the next oil pipeline against causing greenhouse gas emissions by flying to the rally and supporting the companies that want to build the pipeline by buying and using their fuel. There’s a selfish element to this decision, as I’m weighing benefits, such as professional networking, that accrue to me personally against costs, such as the emissions themselves and the climate impacts they supposedly herald, that are borne by a larger population. There are elements of time and uncertainty here too, as by choosing to attend I demonstrate that I value possibly reducing emissions in the future rather than actually reducing them today by not attending. Values, choices, trade-offs…
Life is complex. We’re forced to make trade-offs all the time. This is compounded by the reality that, to paraphrase author Robert Heinlein, people aren’t rational animals, they’re rationalizing animals. Any choice we make that advertises a set of values that might paint us as being more selfish or more short sighted than we’d prefer can easily be rationalized as for the greater good, or at least for the greater good over the longer term, maybe. If Homo sapiens is good at anything, we’re good at inordinately valuing abstract visions of the distant future, often, and unfortunately, at the expense of the real world, today.
Those who choose to do something about a mismatch between the values they’d prefer to be known for and their behavior have two options: leave their behaviors as they are and be more honest about their values, or take a closer look at their behaviors and revisit the trade-offs they made that lead to them. Crafting internally consistent values and lifestyles is the basis of integrity, not just for activists but for all of us. If we can’t be honest with ourselves about what we really value, where does that leave us? We’re living a lie. If we aren’t willing to adjust our choices to express the values we want to be known by, how do we bear the burden of the cognitive dissonance this creates? Upon what do we build family, community and polity if not on integrity, on crafting lifestyles that perfectly reflect our values?