Between the People and the Government there is a Huge Ethical Gap
Elizabeth Sawin April 1, 2003
“Why aren’t they using their words?” a seven-year-old asked her mother today. She was talking about the U.S. bombing of Iraq.”
So begins Talking with Children about War – an article sent home from my daughter’s school.
The little girl’s question is a good one. But I didn’t find the answer in Talking with Children about War, which focused on parent-child communication. “Why aren’t they using their words,” is a different kind of question, one of morals and ethics.
Children are disturbed by rules that change from one situation to another. You know this if you have ever tried to explain to a child why she must buckle up in the car but not on a bus or why she must eat all her vegetable at Grandma’s Sunday dinner even though she gets to skip the peas and beets at home.
When children see inconsistencies they look for explanations. That’s what that seven-year-old in the article is doing. She is asking whether violence is ever an acceptable tool for solving problems.
And we, as a nation, seem to be saying – um, it’s not that simple. Pushing and hitting are not acceptable tools to work out problems at home, in school, or on the Senate floor, but we will use – sometimes even celebrate the use of – automatic weapons and four-thousand pound bombs to solve international problems.
Can we pause long enough to see situation through children’s eyes?
Stay with your image of that seven-year-old girl, whoever she is. Imagine she sees Nathan hitting Emily on the playground. “Why aren’t they using their words,” she might ask. At any school I’ve been around, at any school any parent would tolerate, the answer would be – “It doesn’t matter why he’s doing it, hitting is never OK; Nathan and Emily need to work this out with words.”
And now imagine that same playground, with the same teacher answering not out of the ethics we teach our children, but out of the doctrine of “preemptive security” that gives rise to our current international policy. “Stop making a fuss,” that teacher would say, “Nathan thought Emily might hit him tomorrow, so, of course, he hit her first.”
When you see it from this vantage point the gap between our personal ethics and our national ethics is a giant chasm.
This chasm exists not just in our ethics about war and violence, but also in our environmental ethics.
The first week of school my daughter and her classmates decorated the hallway outside their classroom with painted butterflies labeled with each child’s wish for the future. There were butterflies wishing for an end to pollution, butterflies for clean drinking water, and butterflies for endangered animals. These ordinary children of an ordinary town have a deep environmental ethic, and they’ve learned it from the adults around them.
We teach them that the earth matters. We plant trees with them on Earth Day and recycle with them. We pick up litter. We show them our treasured wild-spots where we picnic or feed the ducks or paddle a canoe. But, at the same time that we are teaching our ethics, species are going extinct, toxic chemicals are accumulating, fisheries are collapsing, and the glaciers are melting.
What is going on here? Are we a nation of hypocrites, teaching our children one thing and acting out another as a society? Maybe that’s part of it. People who have been so hurt by life that they can only identify with a narrow community may hold one set of hopes for their loved ones and a different set for the people of a distant place.
But is that all there is to it? Are all of us just flat-out flawed? Are we destined to continue our battles with the environment and other nations until one or the other battle destroys us?
I don’t buy that. I think that what we teach our children gives a better indication of what we are – of what we COULD be – than our national policy does. What we teach children comes straight from our hearts and right out of our life experiences. If you want to see our real beliefs and aspirations look at what we teach. Be kind and share. Treat all lives as sacred. Respect yourself, others, and the earth. Taken together these seem like a decent roadmap to a peaceful, sustainable future.
But we affect the world not only as individuals. We are also citizens of a powerful nation. Until our basic values are expressed in the laws, policies, budgets, and actions of our nation we will continue to add to the suffering in the world. Our ethics gap will haunt us in the bloody faces of children struck by shrapnel, in the hungry faces of the poor, in landscapes altered by climate change, in forests stripped of bio-diversity, and in hundreds and of other places.
The only alternative I see starts by recognizing that our ethics, though personal, are also widely shared. Individually, we can try harder than ever to live by them. And collectively, we can organize around them. We can use the ethics we teach our children as the base from which we speak, write, protest, and vote until we have a government that is ready act out of the basic ethics held by its citizens. Be kind and share. Treat all life as sacred. Respect the earth.
Imagine a United States government like that. We could have it, but only if we accept that our duty as transmitters of ethics does not end with our children. We have a government to educate as well.