Socrates was right, culture shapes character

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Today's newspaper, radio and television news broadcasts are full of ethically horrific stories of famous personalities caught making inappropriate comments of a demeaning nature. From racial slurs uttered in comedy clubs, to the vocal debasing of women in popular music genres, this mad societal desire for "shock and awe" entertainment only results in the steady marginalization of our American virtues and the slow but cumulative weakening of our civilization -- the same American civilization that grew out of our founding fathers' pioneering concept that individual rights were not mere platitudes, but actual attributes that our great country should hold dear. Likewise, if you look at the Air Force Core Values of integrity, service and excellence, you can see they cannot exist within a framework of immorality and bad ethics.

As a defender of the U.S. Constitution (just like you), I'm appalled at what is happening to our country regarding the practice of good ethics. I refuse to sit idly by while the way of life I have taken an oath to defend (just like you), and which represents the only civilization on Earth ever founded on the concepts of liberty and God-bestowed human rights, be bled to death by the hemorrhaging of common sense. Since we all make up the society of our Air Force, our county and our humanity, perhaps we had all better take a step back and turn off the electronic devices this weekend. Instead of spending our free time in digital pursuit of virtual "bad guys," perhaps we should call a timeout and delve into the realm of ethics, in an honest attempt to confront the more dangerous "bad guy" in our own value bases.

The famous Greek philosopher Socrates (469 - 399 B.C.) once said regarding ethics:
"If you immerse yourself with good books, good music and good companionship, you will, over time, take on virtuous qualities of goodness, even if deep inside, you are truly not a good person. Likewise, if you immerse yourself with unethical books, unethical music and unethical companionship, you will over time, take on the qualities of unethical behavior, even if by nature, you are a good person."

My critics will of course condemn me, but they're wrong in this case, and Socrates is right. Proof: as parents everywhere know, allowing their kids to hang out with "the wrong crowd" after school, over time results in significant unacceptable behavior at home. Having your children involved in more wholesome after-school pursuits like music, sports, and service organizations (Boy and Girl Scouts) often results in less "problems".

Put another way, it may be perfectly legal (according to the First Amendment) to make inappropriate comments on the airwaves, but it's not ethically correct. Likewise, it may be legal to buy music or pornography that glamorizes the degradation of women, but it's not ethically correct. Looking to our country's laws as the sole ethical compass of our nation, is not always 100 percent ethically correct in all cases either. Remember that until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, it was legal to own slaves. Just because something is legal, it does not mean it should be embraced. If we don't teach, reinforce and advocate ethics, we run the risk of having our Airmen make unethical choices (even if legal), and then reaping the adverse consequences of such actions in return.

I can't count the number of times in my career I've entered fitness facilities on military installations and have become so nauseated by the blaring of unethical offensive music lyrics piped in through the gym's loudspeakers, that I've been forced to ask the attendants to change the station (or find a less offensive atmosphere for physical exercise). A few years ago, I entered morale welfare and recreation theater run by one of our sister services, and arrived a few minutes before the movie's start. I was greeted by the public announcement system playing a current hit tune that featured a female vocalist graphically bragging about her prostitution prowess. When I asked the manager to please change the station since the lyrics were offensive to me, I was given a polite refusal with the faulty syllogistic logic that the artist in question was that year's Grammy award winner and therefore, the music was appropriate for public broadcast. Hmmm ... was there not a disconnect here between legal and ethical matters?

If we follow Socrates' advice, then we should be very aware of the quality of everything we surround ourselves with. The old shrug-off expression: "It's only for entertainment purposes, I know the difference," is no longer an acceptable response. Socrates would have shaken his gray locks over such ignorance. Proof: Would a good parent shrug off potential information that their kids were hanging around drug dealers after school by saying "It's okay, I've trained them well ... they won't try drugs"... Hmmm ... it would seem that in some cases, we intuitively recognize good ethics, but other cases we choose to ignore the practice of good ethics.

Why do we condemn unacceptable behavior in our Air Force society, but allow ethically offensive aspects of our culture to flow unobstructed throughout our environment, then act shocked when instances of inappropriate behavior surface among our Airmen? I am not an advocate of censorship (by profession and by oath, I am a defender of the First Amendment, and all the other Amendments too), but I am also an advocate of smart choices. It seems sometimes we naively believe social problems within the Air Force family can be fixed by the administration of Web-based training and slide show briefings, while in reality, what is really needed is supervisory coaching and mentoring of Airmen on an important key concept of Socratic ethics: "... All human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them"

And as Dr. James Toner said in one edition of last year's Air and Space Power Journal: "The teaching of ethics is not the Chaplains' job, it's everybody's job."

Let's not fool ourselves into believing that we can safely (even if legally) engage in such unethical social practices like pornography, narcissism, racial slur-slinging, etc. ... during off-duty time and remain unscathed. Likewise, we can't call ourselves wingmen if we sit idly back and watch our buddies, friends, and co-workers demonstrate unethical behavior contrary to Air Force Core Values and do nothing to correct them. The individual will always have the freedom of choice, but while protecting that freedom of choice, we still should be taking a more proactive role in promoting good ethics. One can always choose between the right and the wrong thing -- but true joy comes from purposely choosing the right thing, even if the wrong thing is much more instantly gratifying.

I challenge all Airmen everywhere to perform a short experiment this weekend with the aim of taking the first steps in the healing of our society and our service. Turn off those music channels with offensive music videos, abstain from pornography if this indeed is a habit, and eliminate any derogatory expressions from your vocabulary (yes, you can do it!). Instead, spend that now free time reading a good book, exploring the beauty of the outdoors, or renting a good movie. If you're afraid of becoming a "nerd" or turning "uncool" -- well, don't sweat it, because that won't happen. If you're uncool (like me) before you begin this experiment, chances are you'll remain so. What will happen, however, is that you'll enter a path to better living, which will in turn, begin to heal our human, American, and Air Force societies, while finding a piece of the truth in the phrase: "Life is good".

Life is also short my friends ... read more Socrates.

Editor's Note:
(Ethics: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group (such as professional ethics, or a guiding philosophy.)