Before we begin, be reminded: Human Matters is not a political column. It’s a column about what matters – certainly what matters to me, at least – regarding what it means to be human.
Now, to the matter at hand …
First principles, that is, prima facie duties (SEE Thomas Aquinas) are thorny, troublesome things. If you are desirous to possess them, these duties will demand fierce fidelity. Great courage. In some cases, these duties will cost you – your reputation, your career, your marriage, your money. Even your life.
Do you know the reward for living with integrity? You get to live with integrity.
Which is to say principles are costly. Sometimes very costly. I know. I have the tee-shirts.
And sometimes being faithful to first principles requires you to defend a person, a group, an institution or a cause that you … loathe. Ouch.
That said, I invite you to think with me about a world – our world – currently made infamous by “anonymous sources.”
Now, a confession: I’m not a reporter. I’m not a journalist. I am a writer who seeks truth and meaning and then feels compelled to write about it. That’s really it, folks. The beginning and the end of my credentials.
I’m saying, maybe I don’t understand. It’s possible I’m naïve and ignorant about how reporting and journalism works or even why it exists.
But I’m not naïve and ignorant about doing the work of ethics. A sinner, certainly; but not naïve and ignorant.
So, I present to you two “first principles:”
If I know you to be grossly and irredeemably incompetent with responsibilities over which I have or share charge, if I know you to be guilty of egregious, destructive moral turpitude such that it has consequences over that or them which I have or share charge, or if I know that you are doing evil … then I must act. I must speak. Sometimes in micro-contexts – the family, the friendship circle, the office. Sometimes in macro, that is, public contexts – the corporation, the faith community, the police, the court of law. My very last choice, and that only in the agony of having no other voice of just redress, would be the media.
If I decide to speak/act, if I must needs take my concerns any place beyond going to the source (which is you) to address my concerns, then my prima facie duty is to stand by my words in the naked bright light of a revealed self. To say how I know what I know, to present evidence, to name names. Certainly my own.
If it’s important enough to say out loud in public, then it is demanded of me not to hide. Whatever that costs. Let the chips fall. Otherwise … shut up. If the issue sufficiently grieves you, then leave that family, friendship circle, office. Or White House.
(You see where this is going, don’t you?)
I remember Bob Woodward as a hero. His work to seek and tell the truth of Richard Nixon and Watergate was, in my view, a gift and sacrifice to uphold the best of the United States. My country. A country founded, however imperfectly, on principles, morals and justice.
Can’t say I’ve paid much attention since then. I’m aware he bears renown for writing books about presidents. I’m aware he has retained an impeccable reputation as a journalist, that during a time when journalistic credibility has become greatly mistrusted.
And I’m aware he’s just published a book about Donald Trump, purportedly containing stories and direct quotes from scores of people whom we will never know. Because he obtained the stories and quotes ‘off the record.’
I’m aware The New York Times published, on 9/5, an op-ed piece savagely critical of Donald Trump, written by someone saying he/she works in the Trump Administration. The Times brass says they know this person’s identity, but are bound not to reveal it. The mystery author will not reveal his/her identity.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say every word printed in Woodward’s book and the op-ed is true. Well, that doesn’t change the weighty demands of first principles! It adds weight!
We cannot live morally, justly, or even sanely in a world wherein I’m allowed to stand up and say, “[Joe Bob] has done something stupid/immoral/criminal/evil, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.” (You’re already talking about it, you hypocritical coward!)
We cannot live morally, justly, or even sanely in a world wherein I’m allowed to slide anonymous communique under the door and out into public saying, “[Joe Bob] has done the following things stupid/immoral/criminal/evil. I was there. I heard. I saw. But I’m not willing to tell you who I am.” (So, what? I’m just supposed to believe the communique, but you get to remain unaccountable? Then I should feel comforted? That’s sufficient evidence for me to agree with you? To despise what you despise? Hate whom you hate? Because some invisible person said so?)
From 3rd Grade playgrounds through high school and on to American politics, the most common and evil sentence rendered in the courts of interpersonal, communal and political justice is … Death By Innuendo.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)