The word integrity has been so thoroughly co-opted by technologists that its use in ordinary language has almost ceased. That’s a shame, because it’s an important word, one that has no precise equivalent in the English language. According to OED, it means something undivided; an integral whole. The condition of having no part or element taken away. Soundness. The term comes from the Latin word meaning complete.
The opposite of integrity, etymologically, is privation, deprivation, depravity, perversion, rupture, destruction, corruption. That which takes away from the whole entity or system or organ, from wholeness, wholesomeness, holism, soundness, sanity, ecology, cohesion, idealism, interconnectedness. In other words, breakdown.
The term can be applied in the moral, rational, or physical domains of human endeavor. Moral integrity refers to a cohesive set of principles, rational integrity to a cohesive logic, and physical integrity to a cohesive physical structure. In each sense integrity means wholeness, soundness, consistency, coherence.
So when we say something lacks integrity we mean, literally, it is falling apart. It has lost the critical elements, balance, connectedness that kept it together. It has come unglued.
When we say our government lacks integrity we mean they say one thing and do another. They lie. They use the ends to justify any means. They corrupt terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’, and the entire moral framework under which they presume to operate crumbles.
When we say our electoral system lacks integrity we mean it has been so perverted by political partisanship, gerrymandering, unreliable and insecure voting systems and ad hominem attacks designed to confuse and mislead a dumbed-down electorate, that it is no longer capable of reliably reflecting the will of the people.
When we say big business lacks integrity we mean they use pursuit of profit and the ‘maximization of shareholder value’ as an excuse to distort the facts, lie to their customers, cheat and gouge their customers, sue their customers, screw and extort concessions from their front-line employees, wreck the environment, cripple the holistic economies of the communities and countries in which they operate, pervert constitutions to obtain ‘rights’ that trump the rights and freedoms of individuals, bribe public officials for favours, fraudulently obtain concessions and subsidies — all in controvention of critical but forgotten clauses of the corporate charters that we the people granted them as a privilege.
When we say the legal system lacks integrity we mean it allows millionaires to commit murder and fraud with impunity but condemns the poor to death even on falsified or inadequate evidence, it substitutes the rule of man for the rule of law, it allows judges to make laws instead of upholding them, it metes out wildly different sentences for the same crime, or for no crime at all, just the mere suspicion of some bureaucrat, and it allows and even encourages abrogation of fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms out of extremist political zeal or expediency.
When we say the media lack integrity we mean they slough off their responsibility to inform, sacrifice balance and fairness for ratings, dumb down and pander to their audience because it’s cheap and profitable, pass off propaganda and unsubstantiated information from governments and corporate sponsors as fact out of lazyness and greed, and buy up and shut down smaller competitors that were doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.
I could go on and talk about the education system, the health system, drugs and bribery in the amateur sports system, and many other examples, but I think you get the idea.
It is not surprising that when our public institutions, the very fabric of our democracy and constitutional liberalism, lack integrity, and corporations also lack integrity, we as individuals start to do the same. If the government lies to achieve its own ends, why shouldn’t we? If Enron execs steal millions and defraud the government, why shouldn’t we? If the legal system allows immigration officers and security forces total discretion to take the law into their own hands, why shouldn’t we? If corporations can use their oligopoly power to fix prices at exorbitant levels, why shouldn’t we use whatever means are at our disposal to get their stuff free? If the voting system is rigged, why bother to vote or even learn about the issues?
This is third world logic, the logic that says ‘trust no one’, the insane logic that only applies when rights, freedoms, justice, the rule of law, and democracy are all pipedreams, perpetually subverted to money and power. Alas, integrity, like the democracy and constitutional liberalism it underpins, takes time and struggle to build, but is fragile and easy to destroy. We have taken for granted all the structures that are built on integrity, and we are losing them. The lack of integrity of our leaders — of all major political parties, and in entertainment, sports, business, every field where there is fame, power and money to be had — is causing us to give up hope, faith and trust in the institutions they represent.
There is an answer, but it’s not an easy one. We need first to understand that the way we choose to live as individuals is a reflection of our self-respect, and that personal integrity is all about taking personal responsibility for our future, our actions, our decisions, the way we live and, to the extent we can, for the whole world in which we live. It is all about not leaving this up to god, or the fates, or the government, not ‘buying off’ that responsibility with whatever money or power we might have, and not blaming others in order to shrug off that responsibility. We are each one-six-billionth responsible for every baby born addicted to crack, for every child working in slave labour, for every woman stoned to death for infidelity, for every man dying of AIDS, for every political prisoner’s torture, for every animal who lives in perpetual agony until he is butchered for food, for every asthma death caused by industrial pollution. It’s time foreach of us to take that responsibility.
We need to learn a lot more, now and quickly and continually, than we ever learned in school or on the job. We need to understand the current state, to learn what can be done, and what needs to be done, and how and by whom it needs to be done. And then we need to take that responsibility and that knowledge and act on it.
And we need to identify and put forward leaders who have that same personal integrity, and who will use the power that comes with leadership to act on their responsibility and to rebuild the integrity of public institutions, while we at the same time, in our roles as citizens and employees and consumers, do what we can to help in the rebuilding, and hold those institutions to account until the job is done.
This is the antithesis of the ‘I give up’ approach of libertarians and the Bush Administration, who seem to believe that rather than restoring the integrity of public institutions, the answer is to dismantle them. It’s a naive and nihilistic approach (though understandable in this age of boundless cynicism and oversimplification). Such an approach merely redistributes power from public institutions that lack integrity but have a public mandate, to private institutions that lack integrity and are responsible only to themselves. Such a dismantling is the ultimate abdication of responsibility, the dis-integration of our very society.
No, no, no, I hear you saying. We can’t change it. It’s inexorable. It’s fate. It’s not our responsibility. It’s not our fault. It’s too big a task. I don’t have time to do anything more. Life is too short for me to take on this terrible responsibility, to learn all these unbearable facts. We can’t do anything about it anyway. It’s in god’s hands now. I can’t handle this. I’m just a little guy. Damn you, don’t tell me that if I’m not part of the solution I’m part of the problem. I do my best. Others are much worse. I don’t want to hear this.
I hear you saying these things because I’ve said them all to myself, and to others that have tried to shake me out of my lethargy. I’m finally waking up, and it’s awful, and I have to do something. I don’t want people to remember me, in a cataclysmic future, as a guy who had some good ideas but never got around to doing anything about them. If I’ve disturbed you before you’re ready to get up and do something, I’m sorry. If you think I’m full of shit, please go and bother someone else — I’m too busy to argue with you anymore. We’ve got a world to save.
Next week I’ll be publishing the How to Save the World Action Plan — pulling together the various ideas — social & educational reforms, new technologies, innovations, political, economic and legal reforms, new collaborative business models and new economy concepts, plus the personal ‘radical simplicity’ component — that I’ve talked about on these pages this year. Starting next month you’ll see more progress reports — what’s working and what isn’t — and more exhortations to you to help out with specific collaborative projects, in this blog. The time for just talking, as they say, is over.