Thursday, April 23, 2015
Here's the thing: as a secretary with employee information at my fingertips, I had access to this person's full legal name, mailing address, telephone number, email address, date of birth and social security number. Think I could have done some damage with that info? Yep. Was this person ever in serious danger of my doing so? No, not really. I'll admit that in the first three months after I lost my job I was still actively bitter about what had happened, and more than once I thought about using that data to exact revenge. (Remember, I was younger and dumber back then.) But over time the anger and bitterness faded, and I chalked up the whole experience to a life lesson learned.
Yes, I could have used that information to ruin someone's life, with a very high possibility that I'd never get caught. So why didn't I do it? At the time I had a number of reasons in mind, not the least of which was that it would be a serious violation of the golden rule. But I also felt very strongly, even on my bitterest days, that getting revenge would not have been honorable.
Honor -- here roughly defined as lawful, noble or great-hearted behavior -- isn't currently a celebrated virtue, at least in America. It's been shuffled over to the discount shelf of unfashionable virtues, along with modesty and filial piety. I'm not sure most young Americans could even define it without a dictionary. And yet honor was once a powerful force to shape our destiny as a nation. The signers of the Declaration of Independence put their good names to a document which famously concludes, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." As is common in classic English writing and speaking, this list proceeds in order from least to greatest importance. The signers understood that their lives and their fortunes would be on the line, and might very likely be taken by the enemy. But no one else could take from them their honor -- the only abstract human possession here described (and by Thomas Jefferson, no less) as sacred.
It's a shame that more parents don't teach their children about honor, and the benefits of having and keeping it. For one thing, it's far easier to live with yourself when you are secure in the knowledge that you have behaved honorably. As writer Lois McMaster Bujold defined it through one of her characters, "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself." Thus, the only person who can truly damage your honor is you, through the deliberate choice to engage in mean-spirited and cruel acts; even if such acts never come to light to cast damage on your public reputation, you will always know what you've done.
I've been thinking about honor a lot lately, as I read news stories about various people cyberbullying, making death and rape threats, doxxing and engaging in similar activities against people they consider "the enemy." Such people invariably work hard to remain anonymous, which suggests that even if they care nothing for their honor, they have some scruples about damaging their reputations (or at least about getting caught). And I've come to a conclusion about these tactics: no matter what someone else did to get you to the point where you thought such behavior was a good idea, you have lost the moral high ground. Your meanness, your petty behavior, your acts of social terrorism reveal far more about you than they do about the target of your spleen. If you do these things, your honor -- your sacred honor -- is destroyed, and you have no one to blame for it but yourself.
Maybe it's time we made honor a valuable concept again. What do you think?