What is it to be loyal?
According to Merriam Webster, to be “loyal” is to be
1 : unswerving in allegiance: as a: faithful in allegiance to one’s lawful sovereign or government b: faithful to a private person to whom fidelity is due c: faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.
I don’t have a problem with this definition. I do object, however, that “loyalty” has been given a free pass in modern American culture, as though loyalty is always a good thing. In particular, the mass media has bought into this linguistic sleight-of-hand: according to the mainstream media, it is always a good thing to be “loyal.”
Loyalty is undoubtedly a virtue when we are dealing with pet dogs. We like our dogs to be loyal. We like our dogs to do what we tell them to do. The loyalty of a human being is not necessarily a good thing, however.
Loyalty is a matter of committing oneself to a person, to a group of people or to a cause. But people and causes can be either praiseworthy or despicable (or something in between). If a social cause to which I am loyal is that all babies should have basic medical care, loyalty to such a cause would be a good thing. If my idea is that we should all give homage to Hitler, loyalty to this cause would be a horrible idea. Therefore, how can it be said that loyalty is per se a good thing unless one first examines the merit of the person(s) or clause(s) to which a person is being loyal?
For these reasons, loyalty is not necessarily a virtue. Thus, it shouldn’t any longer be spoken of as though it is always a good thing. In actuality, loyalty is an amoral commitment to people or causes. In and of itself, loyalty cannot and should not be praised. Why should we honor loyalty any more than we honor talking or putting things in our pockets, for example? Whether talking or putting things in our pocket are “virtuous” depends upon what we’re saying or what we are putting in our pocket, right? What if our act of talking is spreading harmful lies? What if we’re putting poison in our pocket in order to carry out a plan to kill an innocent person?
Sometimes, it is a terrible idea to be loyal. Consider a wife’s loyalty to a husband who beats her. I know that there are some warped minds out there who think the wife should stick it out, patiently reading the Bible for inspiration when he’s not actually in the act of smacking her, but I consider it sick to be “loyal” to a person who causes one physical harms. This brings to mind another aspect of being “loyal.” We don’t usually talk about “loyal” husbands, “loyal” employers or “loyal” governments. It seems that loyalty is often a duty that usually falls upon those who are relatively powerless. That’s why the word fits so well with dogs–and common citizens.
Patriotism is a subclass of loyalty. Can it really be said that it is a good thing to always be patriotic, to always show allegiance to one’s country even when one’s country is doing dreadful things? If there is any doubt, a rereading of our founding documents is in order. The Declaration of Independence is proof that patriotism is not per se a good thing. Some forms of government are worthy of loyalty and some are not. The declaration indicates that it is the right and duty of the governed to overthrow governments that do not serve them well.
Yet somehow, loyalty (and patriotism) have been co-opted by the powers that be, twisted in meaning and foisted onto the people. The relatively powerless citizens are constantly told that loyalty (and patriotism) are unquestionably good things. Somehow, the media has gotten away with telling us that it was a good thing that Colin Powell was loyal to his boss, even when his boss asked him to stand before the United Nations with a sincere face and tell the world numerous lies that have resulted in the needless deaths thousands of deaths. Loyalty is good. Dead bodies are bad. But loyalty that causes dead bodies is good.
Like many things that are going on today, this battle over “loyalty” begins with a battle over the use of a word. Those of us who believe that the only valid forms of morality are based squarely on empathy need to dig into the linguistic trenches and fight this important battle with vigor.
This linguistic battle needs to be fought whenever anyone in a position of power tells the citizens that they have an unquestionable duty to be loyal, whenever it is suggested that they have a duty to shut up and get with the program. Whenever we hear this use of the word, we should carefully re-frame the question: are you asking me to support immoral acts? Are you asking me to acquiesce in conduct that is harmful to other human beings? Are you asking me to give you the moral equivalent of a blank check?
Whenever we hear that someone is allegedly a “loyal” public servant, we should similarly ask: are you suggesting that this person is free to facilitate needless violence and pain simply because he or she is committing these acts in the name of the United States of America?
The proponents of unquestioned loyalty and patriotism cannot withstand these simple questions. Their arguments and motives will collapse when they are reminded that loyalty is not (necessarily) a virtue. They need to be reminded that the call to be loyal can no longer shield their immoral ways.