Sometimes quietly profound insights in life occur in the most mundane moments imaginable. Like, say, in your kitchen. While making toast for breakfast on a normal Monday morning.
That happened to me a couple of days ago. While spreading Jiffy on my toast, I happened to glance down at one of those 365-page flip calendars filled with inspirational nuggets that my wife got for Christmas. I can easily go days without noticing such nuggets, but that day—Jan. 21—I actually read it. It said:
“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.”
The truism was voiced by Jane Addams, an American pacifist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. And clearly, she knew what she was talking about.
Wow, I thought. That’s really true.
I think what Addams was getting at is the pernicious—and perniciously subtle—tendency we humans have of deciding that the normal rules don’t apply to us for some self-serving reason. Adam and Eve capitulated to exactly this deception in the Garden of Eden, and humanity has been doing it ever since. It is, as Addams notes, “the essence of immorality.”
I can certainly see that tendency in my own life in all sorts of ways. Like when I tell my son he’s spent enough time playing video games on the computer, for instance, and then I get on to surf the web myself. Or when I get mad at someone speeding past me recklessly on the interstate … never mind the fact that I’m already going 10 m.p.h. over the speed limit, too. Do as I say, not as I do, right?
And while those examples may not seem immoral, per se, I think they do get at the mindset that suggests we often play by a different set of rules internally than we extend to others. In other words, we judge ourselves by our intentions, while we tend to judge others strictly by their actions. And many times when we do so, we do indeed act as if we’re an exception to a rule that we wouldn’t hesitate to apply to someone else.
Reading Addam’s quote, I couldn’t help but think of several high-profile sports and media related stories of late that illustrate this tendency as well.
Take Lance Armstrong, for example. In his recent on-air mea culpa confessing to Oprah Winfrey that he took performance-enhancing drugs, he said he rationalized his decision in part because he suspected he wasn’t producing as much testosterone as other cyclists due to losing a testicle to cancer.
In other words, the normal rules didn’t apply to him.
Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s defense of violence in the movies. When asked recently whether onscreen violence should be scrutinized more carefully in the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., last year, the 65-year-old actor suggested that we look someplace other than media for possible influences.
It is such a horrific tragedy, but we have to separate out what is in the movies—which is pure entertainment—and what is out there in reality. When you have a tragedy like that, and you lose so many lives, I think you owe it to society to do everything you can and look at everything—dealing with mental health, parenting in America, are the schools safe, and do we have the right safety features in place, and should we look at gun laws again, and look if there are any loopholes that can be closed.
In other words, let’s look vigorously for loopholes … as long as the loopholes don’t implicate us or require us to change our positions.
Look, if I were in Armstong’s or Schwarznegger’s positions, I’d probably be saying the same things. The purpose of those examples isn’t to toss these guys under the bus as irredeemable hypocrites. Rather, it’s to show how widespread the mindset Addams described really is. We don’t have to look far in pop culture to find people believe they’re exceptions to the rules everyone else is supposed to abide by.
In fact, I don’t have to look any further than the mirror.