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What Happened to Integrity?

We all make mistakes. We all fall short of the standards and expectations we set for how we should behave with others and engage with the world. In many ways this is understandable: not only are we human, subject to the whims and cravings of ego, but our culture conspicuously promotes fame and fortune and lionizes those who achieve such status with little regard given to how or why. Fighting ourselves and our culture is hard!

But doesn’t it feel like integrity is in very short supply today? Integrity involves adherence to a moral or ethical code – steadfast adherence, unimpaired. Of course anyone can design a set of principles (a code) for how they intend to live their life. But those principals don’t mean much unless there is adherence in the face of temptation, unless the principles remain unimpaired in the face of challenge. And today it feels like there’s plenty of explaining away and verbal gymnastics but not much adherence. Doing the right thing feels impaired and eroded.

I’m sure our time is not unique. No doubt society’s integrity barometer waxes and wanes as economic and cultural influences change. Baseball fans still talk about the Black Sox scandal of 1919 – I wonder if people at the time felt that baseball players throwing the World Series for gambling kickbacks marked a new low for integrity from which society would never recover…I would bet (sorry for the pun) there was a media story or two along those lines at the time.

On September 9, 2021, the New York Times ran a headline “Fed Officials Trading Draws Outcry, and Fuels Calls for Accountability.”(1) The subheading said that several Federal Reserve District Presidents (there are 12 such districts) conducted securities trades in 2020 in markets where Fed decisions would matter…and was followed by “here’s why critics find that troubling.” As if an explanation for why such behavior is unethical, an enormous conflict of interest, and completely lacking in integrity is even necessary!

On September 28, 2021, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline “131 Federal Judges Broke the Law by Hearing Cases Where They Had a Financial Interest.”(2) The story referenced 685 lawsuits from 2010 to 2018 involving companies in which judges or their family members held shares. This time no subheading tickler pointing to why this behavior is blatantly unethical, an enormous conflict of interest, and completely lacking in integrity.

On a related note, Congress tried to address unethical stock trading and conflicts of interest in 2012 under the STOCK Act which in its original form required online searchable disclosures. Surprise, surprise: all the meaningful parts of that Act were gutted by those who were their subject and the Act is now essentially irrelevant.(3)

But it’s not just politics and elected officials. Take a closer look at the World Health Organization (WHO) and their continued mishandling of the pandemic in service to Chinese political interests – a complete betrayal of the honest and dutiful work performed by researchers and scientists under WHO oversight.(4) Or college athletics, one of my favorite rants for many years. College football sold its soul a long, long time ago, and predictably the race to the bottom continues with two “blue blood” programs hiring head coaches away from other “blue blood” programs with $100M+ contracts in recent weeks. Staying with colleges, how about the college admissions bribery scandal that broke in 2019...and around and around we go.

Does anyone care about integrity anymore?! Outrage and concern die fast and we’re on to the next headline.

Holding a mirror up to society always results in dismissal and retaliation. Though important, these are difficult battles to win given the power of the status quo.

But here’s what we can do: we can be accountable to ourselves, our families, our friends. We can define who we want to be and how we want to engage with the world. When we fall short, we can acknowledge the mistakes and take responsibility and start again. And we can be patient and understanding with others who walk the same path. One by one, community by community, we can make integrity a behavior that is applauded and celebrated. We can require these characteristics of our local officials. Eventually these expectations, this culture, can and will spread.

It’s a long road that’s not often traveled today, but it’s the only way I see to find our collective integrity.



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