The UK government has confirmed that it will extradite two terrorist suspects to the US, without demanding a guarantee that they won’t face the death penalty. This is unusual: as a point of principle, the UK does not support the death penalty, and typically will not extradite when that is a prospect. I’m interested in this from the perspective of principles, and values: to what extent are we defined by aspiration, or in the application? If opposition is simply a matter of convenience, put aside whenever the cost is too high, or the convenience too thin, does it really count as a matter of principle at all?
As with all my work, i am not writing specifically about the rights or wrongs of the principle itself: you will each have a view on whether the principle is sound or not, and my own, more liberal, tendencies will doubtless be clear, but rather i’m reflecting on the underlying structure: to what point are our values a matter of stated intent, and promised words, and to what extent are they lived values, and authentic action?
One answer may be clear: it’s our actions that count, and that much is clear when we survey groups to ask what really matters to them: people count action more strongly than promise. The authenticity of the Social Leader is held in their authentic storytelling much more strongly than it is held in their formal position, or their words themselves. In that context, judgement on the UK government would be clear: principles have been abandoned, because it’s not possible to pragmatically put a principle aside, and expect that it is still a principle when you choose to pick it up again. Most likely, it has morphed into a hollow promise.
But what about in a different context: when we consider the ways that opinion is formed, within our tribal structures, and often with elements of group consensus, we see that principle is strongly correlated to membership: break with principle and there is an implicit cost of exclusion. Possibly we could even describe this as ‘subscription principle’, whereby you cannot be a member of a particular community unless you subscribe to a principle.
This would be valuable in terms of unity, because we would have reassurance that with membership comes conformity, and possibly trust. But it would be bad in another dimension: the principle may be lethargic, static, stuck. We may find it hard to change our view.
It’s in this tension, between our varied principles, held partly in membership of respective communities, that we may find a dilemma: is it possible for us to change?
Some principles become outdated as social norms change: the current opposition within the UK to the death penalty is not something foregone and certain. It emerged through decades of debate, and the eventual abolition of our own legal structure for execution. We changed from a principle where we supported it, to a principle where we do not. Our values evolved, and there is no denying that it represents a functional shift in ethics, values, and morality.
Things which we believe to be bedrocks, may prove more fluid than we imagine.
So here is the rub: at least parts of our principles, our underlying morality, are held in our community membership. Part is individual reflection, but on a foundation of cultural influence. And none of it is solid, nothing guaranteed.
Through debate, time, or inattention, our positions shift: sometimes consciously, sometimes without us noticing. This is how regimes become evil. Not necessarily by design and intention, but through neglect and the gradual slippage of values, all often within a consenting community.
The decision to ignore principles in one area, at one time, as a matter of broader convenience may be, well, convenient. But it comes at a cost. If our values are a matter of convenience, we lost something. We pull up the anchor, and will drift with the current. Wherever it takes us.
When it comes to positions of principle, we have two choices: to stand up, or to stand back. Many times we take a third: convenient abrogation. In the moment, we neither clearly step up, nor definitively step back: we simply spectate, and through our lack of action, condone the thing.
Part of Social Leadership is ‘curation’, to choose your space, to make your stand. Not simply in line with those things with which we agree, but for the betterment of the community itself. If we really wish to be an authentic leader, within our communities, we must ensure that whatever position we take is principled: be it in support of, or in opposition to, a change. We must avoid the third choice: avoid being swept by the current.