June 13, 2013

We Admire a Principled Stand, But Only to a Point

Civil War monument
Soldier (Photo credit: vjack)
We admire the politician who takes a principled stand, especially when so many others seem to sell out to the highest bidder or change their views to conform to public opinion. We may even admire someone who holds political views with which we do not agree because "at least they stand for something."

In the context of secular activism, we praise the individual who brings the church-state complaint - not only because we consider it important - because we know the social consequences our complainant is likely to face. We know how easy it is to remain silent in the face of injustice.

I think it is safe to say that most people tend to respect someone who is willing to stand up for his or her principles in the face of opposition and pressure to conform. We often refer to individuals who fail to do this when we think they should as "spineless" or worse.

And yet, what I have always found curious about our tendency to admire the principled stance is how quickly and how thoroughly the admiration can turn to loathing. It appears that most people will only value a willingness to stand on principle up to a point. Once this point is crossed, they are quick to condemn the individual for being too idealistic, having unrealistic goals, being too impatient, or some other flaw that was not mentioned previously.

Suppose we have an atheist who has decided after years of personal reflection that she is no longer willing to set foot in a church, synagog, temple, or mosque. She is not only an atheist; she describes herself as anti-theistic. She believes that faith is a blight on humanity, and she is not interested in supporting it by her presence. We might disagree with her, and we might find her stance a bit silly. However, we also might say that some measure of courage is required to take such a position and stick to it in the face of pressure. Even though we might not share her convictions, we could still admire the fact that she has convictions upon which she is willing to act.

For some, our friend would cross a line if she were to refuse to attend the wedding of a mutual friend. This might be the point at which they would turn on her and condemn her for the very principles they previously admired. For others, the refusal to attend a friend's wedding would be fine, but refusing to attend a grandparent's funeral might be too much. We have different thresholds, but most people seem to have such thresholds.

Could it be that we will admire someone's willingness to act upon his or her principles right up until the point that doing so places us in an inconvenient or otherwise undesirable situation? Might we really be so shortsighted and self-serving? I do not find this to be a particularly pleasant thought, but there seems to be something to it.

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