Person or Principle?
by Julie Pascal
Fifteen or twenty years ago I was reading a science fiction novel and during the course of a conversation one character asked the other which they put first, if they put people first or principles first. If I recall correctly the main character said that she put people before principles.
I remember this so clearly after all this time because I didn’t understand the question. What was meant by “people?” What was meant by “principles?” It seemed obvious to me that you couldn’t separate the two things so I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to get at. In my mind it always came around to the same idea. Principles were how you protected people. I couldn’t picture a scenario in my mind that could be described as putting people first without relying on principles to make that possible.
So it stuck with me. Over the years I’d reconsider the question in this or that context and discover that it still didn’t make sense.
Perhaps unfortunately, I had an epiphany a year or so ago. I finally figured out what putting people before principles looks like. And I noticed that it’s actually very common. Not only is it common but it’s got a wide scope of expressions and consequences in our society.
The shortest explanation is that putting people before principles is picking sides.
Principles, being principles, are those things that apply equally to everyone. “Equality” is a principle. All men are equal under God. All men are equal under the Law. The Constitution protects everyone, not just some. All have the right to worship and speak freely according to their own conscience, not just some. Lying is wrong, no matter what you lie about. Stealing is wrong, no matter who you steal from.
This passage from “A Man for All Seasons” is a discussion of “people vs. principle” that, although it doesn’t use the terms at all, catches the essence of it quite well.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Consider that different people identify the “Devil” differently and we see that there is no end to those who would “Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil.”
In fact, there is no end to those who will argue that a good person must not “tolerate the intolerant.”
What does that mean? For one example, there is an idea that has been part of our culture that our individual political life, who we vote for or why we vote for them or how our political involvement is expressed, these things ought to be apart from our social and economic involvement in our communities. Everyone should have the right to their crack-pot notions and the right to be horribly wrong about politics, according to this principle. More, there’s been the idea that even if you really hated the choices that someone else made, or the statements that someone else made, that you ought to defend their right to make them. People didn’t always live up to it, but at least the principle was there to try to live up to. This has been turned entirely on its head. The reversal is more than simply not defending people who are wrong. It’s more than choosing to be neutral. It must be active opposition. That you must not tolerate the intolerant means this: If someone doesn’t pick the right side in their individual political life, you are morally obligated to be intolerant of their participation in the community.
By that I mean… their job, walking unharassed, purchasing items in a store…
Oh, this intolerance is almost certainly expressed as a positive rather than a negative. If directed at you this will be about who must be protected from your awful speech, who is hurt by your hateful ideas, and losing your ability to make a living and pay your bills will be told as reasonable “consequences” for your horrible political expression. Bad things must be opposed by good people.
This idea if applied as a principle equally to everyone would mean that in the past (and elsewhere in the world as I type) all the religious persecution of people with “bad” religions, all the persecution of those with “perverse” and “corrupting” sexual practices, any oppression by law or extra-legally by communities toward those of minority opinions or ethnicities, any horror that is done under the cover of protecting children or society as a whole, is justified. All of it is justified.
The horrific nature of this obligation to oppress is seldom acknowledged because the sanctioned harassment in question is not considered a principle. It’s picking sides. (You ought to pick the right side. How hard is that?) Since it’s about picking sides, when you point out to someone that different groups of people are committing the same oppression or injustice and for the exact same motivation you will be told that these are not “equivalent.” You are guilty of a false equivalency. They aren’t equivalent because they can’t be equivalent. The people involved are different. The people are different and the ideas are different. Those being defended truly are “good” and those being punished truly are “bad”. It doesn’t matter at all that those other people believed the same things when they did what they did. They were wrong. So it’s not equivalent.
At this point you should be able to see that the only thing that protects you at all is being lucky enough to have a majority of other people willing to defend your “rights”. However, since “rights” are principles that would apply to everyone even the bad guys, it’s not your “rights” that are being defended, just YOU. Ultimately, your only real protection lies in having convinced someone to choose to put YOU before principles. Today. Hopefully tomorrow.
It seems self-evident to me that shifting opinions protect one about as well as closing your eyes keeps others from seeing you.
Perhaps you can see how I always came around full circle and back to the fact that the only thing that does actually protect a “person” is a “principle.” But this equality of protection for everyone requires accepting that principles also protect the Devil and some people just seem unable to accept that. I don’t know if that’s a personality thing, or if it’s a matter of failing to teach principles at all unless it’s to rail against how the principle is used to protect the Devil and should be destroyed.
“Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”
There are a number of ways that “putting people first” expresses itself in our society. One of the most common and relatively simple ways is the various political dichotomies that we see. It’s in every argument based on compassion. It’s in weaponized empathy. It’s in claims that logic or facts are oppressive. It’s in the political rhetoric that says that calling for economically sustainable and sensible policies is the same as wanting babies to die.
I’m sure that many people can point out examples in our culture where we’re asked to choose picking sides over principles of equality.
This is why a principle that applies equally to everyone and would protect everyone, “all lives matter”, is considered hateful, and something based on no principle at all but on picking sides, “black lives matter,” is something all “good” people ought to support.
This is why authors who ought to know better by virtue of education and occupation outright call for the end to free speech, which has no value in their ideology beyond allowing bad people to say hurtful and damaging things.
Picking sides is how someone can rail against Christianity and support Islam without going bug nuts from a cognitive break. There’s no conflict because there is no principle, only picking sides. The illogic involved is immaterial. A parent doesn’t care about the illogic of favoring their own child when their own child isn’t the best, brightest, most accomplished and wonderful of all children. They just do it.
So maybe it is a personality issue after all. Maybe some people simply can’t turn off the part of their brain that wants to find principles, wants to figure out the larger network of truths that apply to everyone. Maybe it’s personality that makes inequality and the abandonment of principles grate like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Maybe it’s the leftover howl of a small child when they think they figure it out and then life isn’t “fair.” Except that some people think that “fair” means we all have the same rules, while other people just want life to be “fair” in their favor.
I’ve recently started to wonder if intersectionality is an attempt to design an overarching principle. (Feminism sort of tried when parts of it attempted, and failed, to rebrand as equality for everyone.) Just the concept of intersectionality, the word itself, seems to be an attempt to bring it all into some semblance of a uniform ideology. But beyond the terminology chosen it’s hard to see and I don’t blame anyone for thinking I’m nuts to suggest that what intersectionality is attempting is “principle.” There’s a reason that we look at intersectionality and start talking about the oppression Olympics, after all. There’s a reason why it was described by a young (very liberal) person I know as “an overwhelming manifesto where if you disagree with a single thing it proves that You Are Bad.” Intersectionality might be an attempt at developing a principle but it can’t succeed.
Imagine having a Person over Principles world view that is so foundational and automatic that it’s transparent. You can’t even imagine a different way of looking at the world. If you read this essay to this point you won’t be disagreeing with the ideas I’ve presented because you’ve decided that I’m a delusional nincompoop spouting gibberish. This is how foundational the assumptions are. Now imagine, instead of just choosing sides and promoting your cause, you’ve decided to try to choose ALL sides and promote ALL causes. Now instead of one person or one cause to put before others, you’ve got to juggle bunches of people and causes and decide their order.
Because “People First” isn’t a principle and it isn’t equality (since equality is a principle), it means you have no choice but figure out who gets put at the head of the line. Who deserves to go first? Who deserves to go second? Where does each person fit and each cause rank compared to others? Add to that the moral imperative to abandon principles of equal or civil treatment in order to oppose the “Devil” whomever the Devil may be?
What a mess.
“And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”
Take heart, they may come for you last.