Monday, February 20, 2012

It may be legal but is it moral?

Thomas Friedman has attracted criticism from some quarters for contrasting Boomers and their “situational values” with their parents' generation which, he says, maintained "sustainable values.” Those who experienced racial or gender discrimination in earlier decades know how unevenly those values were applied. 

America is a far better place today. We live in a more open, inclusive, and democratic society. One example: In 1967 in the Loving v. Virginia civil rights case, the Supreme Court struck down the Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute. Today, the state leads the nation in black-white unions.

Boomers led the fight for equality for women in the workforce and other areas. And they have been at the forefront on important issues like care for the environment.    

But as a Boomer myself, I take seriously Friedman’s comment on the financial crises of recent years: “If there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of 'baby boomers behaving badly' - a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids."

Friedman may overstate the case. My generation has contributed enormously to human progress and many of my peers have dedicated their lives to great causes.  But the financial meltdown was the result of too many people – particularly Boomers – living by situational values. Much of the disastrous activity in the financial world may not have been illegal but it was certainly unethical and irresponsible. 

Paul Abrams wrote recently in the Huffington Post: “Wall Street mavens may be coming around. Years after they decimated the economy, they are beginning to realize that they need to change not just the error of their ways, but also the way of their errors. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, now supports increasing taxes on the wealthiest earners, including increasing capital gains and dividends' taxes. Same for Home Depot's Ken Langone.”

But Wall Street was not alone in its irresponsibility. Millions of Americans were living beyond their means to satisfy desires for instant gratification. And beyond the issue of financial irresponsibility, we Boomers have often bent the rules in other areas. We were eager to change the world for the better but less eager to accept the necessary personal disciplines.

Boomers rejected the restrictive morality of earlier generations. Interestingly, statistics show today’s teenagers are misbehaving a lot less than their parents. Drug and alcohol abuse is much lower; even the percentage of 15-17 year-olds who have had sex is down. Boomers embraced moral relativism. We focused on self-fulfillment, believing that “if it feels good, do it.” What comes naturally must be OK. Many broken marriages and wrecked lives and careers were the consequence.   

But should what comes naturally be our guide?  As science writer Matt Ridley notes in Nature Via Nurture (in paperback, The Agile Gene) “A greater tendency to violence is…innate in the human male. That does not make it right...To base any moral position on a natural fact, whether that fact is derived from nature or nature, is asking for trouble In my morality, and I hope in yours, some things are bad but natural, like dishonesty and violence; others are good but less natural, like generosity and fidelity.” 

The Boomer generation and the ones that followed have made tolerance a preeminent value.  But tolerance alone can’t hold societies together. Without objective moral standards, how can anyone claim that one value is better than another? Paradoxically, commented Rushworth Kidder in Ethics Newsline, “as moral relativism grew in strength, so too did a countervailing social consciousness,” a desire for shared universal values for human rights, for rights of women and codes to stop corruption. Relativism is therefore in conflict with widely acknowledged social values of respect, equality, and honesty.

In our legalistic society in the US, we tend to push the envelope of what can be done within the limits of the law. But just because something is legal does not make it right or moral. Can we embrace shared, sustainable values based on trust and integrity for a world that works for everyone?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Power of Implicit Networks

“Tea is not sweetened until the lump of sugar is dissolved,” said a wise man.

In my book, Trustbuilding, I highlight the power of "implicit networks" in the life of a community. These networks are not linked by organizational structure, but by “intangible threads of relationships, shared understanding, and selfless care for the ‘other.’….These implicit networks provide the moral and spiritual support for courageous initiatives. .. And they are willing to be ‘silent partners,’ ready to support the hopes and needs of others without any public credit or monetary advantage.”

In a city like Richmond where traditional political and business mechanisms are often hindered by racial or cultural barriers, these informal networks play a vital role.  I blogged recently about Audrey and Collie Burton, activists in the black community who built trust with a white city administrator in the 1980s, paving the way for many other unexpected partnerships. Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried a front page story on Boaz and Ruth, a faith-based organization in an impoverished neighborhood that has gained national recognition for its work to enable ex-offenders to rebuild their lives and learn business skills. It was the bold vision of Martha Rollins, a white businesswoman, who lives in the Burtons’ neighborhood. Audrey Burton introduced Martha to the Highland Park community on the city’s North Side and to her informal roundtable for women in executive positions. There Martha met Ellen Robertson, the founder of Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program, who made available an old firehouse as a business location for Boaz and Ruth. 

One hero of the Richmond’s network is John Moeser, a quiet but persistent voice for truth and justice. John is a senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. Long recognized as the city’s dean of urban studies, his analysis of 2010 Census data demonstrates starkly the impact of poverty in the region and the extent to which it is influenced by a history of racial and jurisdictional separation. John’s prophet role has not always made him popular but Richmond owes much to him. Among other things, his research on voting patterns formed the cornerstone of the city’s successful bid to change its electoral system to allow a popularly elected mayor.

Another unassuming but indispensible resource is Phil Schwarz, a former chair of the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Phil, more than any other individual, is responsible for unearthing and documenting the facts surrounding Richmond’s slave trade. Since the first “walk through history” in 1993, he has been our go-to person for accurate telling of history and he is an endless fund of fascinating stories which he loves to share. I was at city hall a few days ago when Phil was honored for his outstanding service on the Slave Trail Commission.

John and Phil personify the power of implicit networks. They are accessible, supportive, and always willing to “show up.” They are generous in sharing their knowledge and their time. 

Ben Campbell, the pastoral director of Richmond Hill retreat center, says, “In this movement we are part of, people are held together by a sense of intentional mutuality more than any particular outcome.” Trustbuilders do not stand out for their own glory. Implicit networks are the glue that holds the community together. They nurture the environment in which change can occur; they enable good things to happen.