Why are many Americans willing to settle for less?


As I write this, the country is in turmoil over the White House scandal, and I find it hard to concentrate on much else. While I believe it’s in everyone’s best interests for the president to resign, I don’t have anything new to contribute to that debate. But one thing I find startling, if the opinion polls are accurate, is the American public’s apparent reluctance to condemn the president’s behavior.

This reluctance is sadly typical of our times, especially among those who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when social revolution prompted many to experiment with drugs and engage in other reckless, immoral behavior. Because we have a collective past of making mistakes, many of us are concerned about being hypocrites if we criticize others’ behavior. For that reason, many baby boomer parents are uncomfortable speaking to their own teen-age children about drug and alcohol abuse and premarital sex. However, studies have shown that our children are most likely to respect and follow our guidance on such matters. Indeed, in many cases, our children crave moral guidance and find it absent among adults they admire.

It’s as if we feel since we’re not perfect, we have no right to expect others to behave well. This reluctance to criticize immoral behavior has not led us to social and political harmony. If anything, our tolerance of immorality and unethical behavior has led to a public cynicism and apathy that threaten our ability to make informed judgments. To accept unethical, immoral behavior on the basis that it is not unusual among politicians, or that it is a private matter, is far more potentially damaging to our children than the sordid details made public in the Starr report.

Indeed, we have the means to protect our children from the shocking details by supervising their Internet use and monitoring what they watch and read. But we will fail to protect them from the erosion of social standards and corruption of government if we do not summon the moral courage to speak out. If we are no longer outraged by such behavior in an elected leader, then we have become too tolerant and cynical, and I fear for our future. To make the argument that a person’s other good qualities compensate for committing serious offenses is to miss the point. People are complicated mixtures of many qualities; we are simultaneously strong and weak, sinful and virtuous. But we have the ability to control our behavior to the extent that our frailties do not compromise our personal integrity. Indeed, expecting moral authority in our leaders is not asking too much.

When we start compromising and rationalizing, we threaten the most basic standards of acceptable conduct. Will we accept admission of immoral, unethical behavior from school principals, generals, pastors, police chiefs, judges, as long as they are popular and good at what they do?

Most well-adjusted children have a profound sense of justice. Once old enough to develop a conscience, they are comforted by knowing people are expected to follow rules, and when they don’t, they must accept the consequences — from paying speeding tickets to going to jail.

It’s my experience that most children are disturbed and angry when they witness people, even other children, avoiding punishment when they have acknowledged or been caught doing wrong. And, often, children would exact a harsher punishment on an offender than an adult might, simply because children have higher expectations. While I’m not suggesting we should view right and wrong from a simplistic, childish perspective, it is important to recognize how justice is perceived by young children, especially when we try to determine the effects this scandal will have on our youth. No one can convince me that children will feel any more secure and confident in adult leadership if the American public tolerates the president’s behavior.

As a parent, I have no use for the media’s guidelines, suggesting ways to help my children cope with the sordidness of the scandal. I know what to tell my children about the president’s behavior and betrayal of the public trust. His actions were wrong, and he should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. What I find so difficult to explain to my children, and to myself, is why so many Americans are willing to settle for less.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.