Managing our two standards for integrity

Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP.  

When You’re of Two Minds, Admit It

Imagine rooming with someone who, at random, turned 180 degrees to face away from you, never noticing or acknowledging that he did that. Whenever he found you behind him he’d yell, “Why do you keep going behind my back? Be consistent dammit!” as though you were the problem.

Though that would be bizarre, you have probably encountered a variation on it, people who are wildly inconsistent and blame you for their variability. Sometimes it’s just wild mood swings that they don’t notice, instead blaming you for being too cheerful or somber, too insensitive or hypersensitive, depending on their unpredictably changeable moods. But there’s a version of it that’s even more common than mood swings.

Did you ever have a boss who, at times, assumed that he was entitled to your loyal, devoted service because “we’re like a family,” but at other times, treated your relationship as though it was strictly business with you serving as just another fee-for-service factor of production? Have you had friends or romantic partners who were annoyed when you weren’t available, but also annoyed that you expected them to be available?

Like the spontaneously about-face roomie, did they somehow assume that you were the one who was being fickle, the boss saying “Come on, you know this is strictly business,” right after talking up the business family, or the friend or partner saying “why are you so clingy?” just hours after complaining about your lack of attention?

That happens.

It happens to the best of us. It happens from the best of us too. That is, for all you know, you might be flip-flopping in your dealings with other people and calling them inconsistent for not being in sync with your alternations.

I don’t mean to get personal. It’s about people in general.

Truth is, we’re all ambivalent.

For one thing, we’re all natural-born hypocrites. We all have double standards. If anything is hardwired in us, it’s just that, a consequence of our nerve endings not extending into each other’s bodies.

My pain hurts me more than it hurts you. Your pain hurts you more than it hurts me. Feeling your pain is optional for me; feeling my own pain is neurologically mandatory. We all attend to the costs to ourselves more than to the costs to others.

Sure, there are people who are deeply empathetic to those around them. But only around them. Like any of us, even Mother Teresa would have been more attentive to her bunion than to a child she didn’t realize was dying somewhere far away.

If we felt each other people’s pain as acutely as we feel our own, we’d all be driven crazy quickly. A side effect of sanity is an innate double standard.

And even if, like Mother Teresa, we’ve done a lot to constrain our natural hypocrisy, we’re still left with fundamental inescapable ambivalences and inconsistencies. We’re torn between wanting immediate and long-term gratification. We want tolerance, which makes us intolerant of intolerance. We judge being non-judgmental to be better than being judgmental. We want freedom, but also security. We want honesty, but it better be flattering. We want a fair contest that we’re guaranteed to win.

Above all, we want to appear un-ambivalently consistent even though we’re not. Life is experienced in shades of dubious gray but must often be lived with black and white consistency, at least if we want to prove reliable to others.

Tucking our ambivalences under the rug is perfectly understandable, and not just because our culture puts a high premium on integrity. It’s a practical issue. We all prefer the objects and tools we use to be reliable and we prefer the same from people we interact with, so of course we would want to come across as consistent. The greater the intimacy, the greater the premium we put on consistency. Romance is largely professed consistency: “You can count on me, babe.”

Life is experienced as conflicting impulses, but we do better socially when we appear consistent. To play well with others we try to keep our conflicting impulses from showing. In the name of integrity, we try to ignore our inconsistencies, tucking them under the rug, hoping nobody notices, maybe hoping they’ll just go away.

Ideally, we would be as consistent as we pretend to be. Fake it ‘til you make it. But short of that, which is better: to claim to be consistent when we aren’t, or to admit that we are tugged in opposite directions?

I’d argue the latter, as would you if you know what it’s like to be blamed for someone else’s vacillations, the boss, friend or partner who can’t make up his mind but claims consistency, shifting the blame to you. You would read that as a lack of integrity, as well you should.

So there are really two definitions of integrity. One is being consistent; the other is being consistently honest, including about when you’re not consistent. I think the latter is more important, and more realistic since we aren’t, by nature, consistent.

For this second kind of integrity, it’s important not to hold a double standard: frustration with others for not having the integrity to admit to their ambivalences, while pretending that you don’t risk the same lack of integrity. We all do.