Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The moral weakness of absolutism

The best thinkers, writers and artists have a gift for portraying certain human dilemmas in a way that touches most of us (their audience) in the deepest of our cores. One such thinker is French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. The specific work I will refer to is a play he wrote titled “Dirty Hands.”

I’ve never watched that play, nor have I read any of Sartre’s works. But I was reading a book titled Defining Moments – When Managers Must Choose between Right and Right. On page 3 of that book, the author cites Sartre’s work in his overall argument that leadership positions, be they managerial or military, are “crucibles of character.” He argues that at certain “defining moments” leaders will have to choose between right and right, rather than wrong and right. “In these cases, when [leaders] do one right thing, they leave other right things undone. They feel they are letting others down and failing to live up to their standards….” Back to Sartre, and his play. Here is how he articulated this dilemma:

The story takes place in wartime. Its main characters include the veteran leader of an underground unit of the Communist party and a zealous young party member. At a crucial moment in the drama, the young man accuses his leader of betraying the party’s ideals, through the compromise he has made with reactionary political forces.

The older man answers his harsh accusation in the following words:

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk… To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your side, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?

This quote from Sartre’s play reminds me of political discourse in Lebanon. The Lebanese population naively sets moral and ethical standards for their political leaders that none of them can follow without fracturing a political system that is defined by compromise. Furthermore, Lebanese are much more willing to forgive their own leaders than they are the leaders of others. These attitudes lead to discourse that is filled with acrimony and dishonest criticism, both of which can bring no good to the overall political situation. We, as Lebanese, should take this tendency into account when we discuss politics amongst oursevles.

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