Compass

Truth - Morality and ethics can both be clearly defined, stringent absolutes, and complicated ambiguous gray areas, depending on your ideological beliefs and personal contexts. In living in a society, there are some commonly agreed upon parameters and guidelines that we all accept, whether consciously or inadvertently. Those who operate beyond the bounds of what we deem legal, if caught, are supposed to deal with the established consequences laws, statutes, and orders that have been set in place. The challenge to that bureaucracy when that established system disadvantages certain people or may just very well be inherently corrupt itself. Are we for moral absolutism or are we more moral relativists?

"Despite what they tell you, there are simply no moral absolutes in a complex world." Berkeley Breathed

Last week was an adventure and a half. At every junction I came to there were moral and ethical decisions to be made. How do I behave, what is best for not only myself but also the communities I find myself part of, and who will this impact? The days of cut and dry, right and wrong, good and evil are long gone left in the remnants of a simplistic childhood. The world I now exist in is intricately complex and woefully complicated. There is no supreme right answer but rather I have to strive to come up with the best answer for any situation I come across. Those decisions also come with the knowledge that whatever I decide will always be up for review by anyone and everyone around me. It's both terrifying and revolutionary at the same time. I am tasked with thinking critically constantly and justifying my actions. I am not just responsible to myself but rather all those around and more broadly the society in which I find myself. I have come to understand that I will make mistakes and questionable choices, but I need to know why and how I come to those decisions so that I can learn from them. Above all else my inner moral compass may slightly deviate but is perpetually fixed to ground me.

There are moments that shake you up and ask you to put all what you preach from the pulpit to the test in the reality of life. This was one of those moments. I had finished a long day of work complete with the organized chaos of student programming. I made my way into Starbucks where a middle-aged man was ahead of me. I saw him grab a bag of moon cheese, stuff it under his sweatshirt, and proceed to exit the coffee shop. I was absolutely shocked. I was scared. I didn't know what to do, and yet I knew exactly what to do. I stood thinking what I was going to do or so - if anything. Should I just pretend that I hadn't seen anything? Should I chase after the man and call the police? The store was closing but I proceeded to tell the barista what I had witnessed, and then offered to pay for the stolen food. I retrieved my drink and went on my way replaying what had happened over and over again. As a kid you learn stealing is wrong, plain and simple. As you grow older, you learn it's not always that clear cut. I understand stealing food to be a crime of necessity, not of delinquency. This man must has been truly desperate to have had to resort to such extreme measures. I cannot fault him for doing what he thought he needed to do to survive. I think of the institutions and systems that must have failed him along the way for him to get to this point. He is not the problem, our stratified society and it's inability to fulfill the basic needs of many of its people is the problem. This is where social justice gets put to practice and my liberal leaning shows up.

There is the other argument that this person did not, in fact, have to steal. They could have asked for the leftover food they throw out at the end of the day, or asked me to buy him some food. There's this thought process that the system owes nobody anything and in comes bootstrap theory. It puts the blame for the situation on the individual and is more conservative. This person didn't get an education, or didn't have a well-enough paying job to be able to afford food. That is this person's fault. Bootstrap theory is this unrealistic idea that regardless of who you are, if you work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make it in this country. It completely disregard social identities, experiences, biases, and institutional & systemic challenges that privilege some at the expense of disadvantaging others. I tried to be impartial, but I really cannot especially not when it comes to the vitality of other human-beings. My moral compass is too steadfast and it calls me to act, to say something, and to do what I can to be part of a change or remain part of the problem. How am I part of the problem, because I benefit from a system that advances me. I succeed directly because other people fail. I have to own that, and then do something tangible to challenge it. That is what my moral compass tells me to do.

Moral absolutism irks me to no end. It minimizes people to dangerous single stories and erases their dynamic contributions. It is so damaging in both positive and negative ways to only recognize the dominant narratives we hear about people. I think it is important to recognize how people positively benefitted their communities while also addressing their problematic behaviors, actions, and attitudes. Our history likes to tell these incomplete stories, because all of history is unfinished, of great heroes, leaders, and figures. Their stories are written in grandiose fashion without room for critique or criticism. There are others who are painted as villains, chaos, and pure evil. They too, are more than their dastardly deeds. There has to be some kind of middle point where we view people holistically instead of in their extremes. Deification is just as dangerous and demonization. We can value the advocacy of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Mother Teresa while still acknowledging their shortcomings of infidelity, abuse, and selective neglect. We can recognize the destructive violence of Malcolm X, Christopher Columbus, and Napoleon Bonaparte while appreciating their propulsion of movements, discoveries, and unification. It's Thomas Jefferson's political leadership combined with his disgusting racism and enslavement. It's Bill Cosby's educational advancement of black youth, and his serial sexual assault of women. It's even BeyoncĂ©'s black girl magic, in addition to her capitalist reaffirmation of blackness. History needs to be complicated lest we lose the nuances of who people actually were/are beyond the stories we believe to be true about them.

A major topic of discussion in this current climate is the treasury's announcement of adding Harriet Tubman to the 20-dollar bill while leaving slave-owning former president Andrew Jackson on the other side. It's complicated. It's powerful to see a woman on our currency but a black woman at that, yet, the narrative we know her for was anti-capitalist. She literally undermined an industry based on the exploitation of human-beings by freeing them in the middle of the night from physical and psychological captivity. Money is the very thing that bought her disenfranchisement and yet we want to pay homage to her with it. It doesn't sit well with me, and on the other hand, does it matter? I don't think we all necessarily need or get to have an opinion on who other people are or are not. What they do or say, most definitely but they themselves as a person - I don't think it is our place. That's just my moral compass speaking.

Morality is difficult. It is subjective. It is messy. I believe we as people are called, charged, challenged - what have you - to treat one another with kindness, respect, and dignity as often as possible. When you stop to think about your morality, think about whether or not this amplifies or belittles the dignity of someone else. If it is the latter, then you may be deviating from your moral compass. If it is the former than you are right on track to finding peace within yourself and synchronized harmony with the world around you. X

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