How loyalty is used and abused

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Is there a difference between being loyal to a friend and being loyal to a country or cause? The principle is the same but the way in which loyalty is used by friends and governments differs greatly. Governments, particularly nationalist governments, demand loyalty; just as they demand evidence of it. What they fail to understand, however, is that all they are doing is encouraging obedience.

How loyalty is used and abused

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 July 2012

Like respect, loyalty is best earned – it cannot be demanded; and, like ambition, it has the ability to be both a virtue and a vice. Unlike many other values, however, there is a distinction between the way in which loyalty is understood in private life and its nature and character in the public domain.

As loyalty is refracted, and one moves from the individual relationships that define one’s personal world to those abstract concepts that underpin nation states, so it becomes harder to define.

At the thin edge of the wedge, personally, it involves trust and fidelity, consistency and sound judgment. When one is loyal, one places trust and faith in another, their behaviour and attitudes. That decision is based on a judgment and its consequence is a person’s consistent fidelity and support, through good times and bad. In this way much strength can be drawn from loyalty. In an uncertain world few things offer more comfort than the knowledge one is not alone.

In contrast, when loyalty is compulsory all one has achieved is obedience, often with the implicit threat of force. There is no comfort in this. How could there be? It is an inauthentic act and fear underpins it, not faith.

Likewise, if loyalty is not principled, if it is unthinking, it cannot be described as virtuous. Blind loyalty is dangerous because it signals the death of agency and independent thought. The more widespread it is the more dangerous it becomes. History tells us that uncritical obedience has always been the gateway to human suffering. Little wonder, then, that dictators and demagogues alike often engender these two kinds of false loyalty, with fear and irrationality as their primary motivators.

At the thick end of the wedge, publically, loyalty is often substituted by a series of euphemisms, as if the word itself was in some way lacking. Of these, two forces in particular – patriotism and nationalism – have a preeminent influence on the idea.

With regards to the former, loyalty is encouraged and almost always linked to a series of principles. For the patriot, loyalty is freely given and thus it is often the more virtuous of the two. With regards to the latter, any appeal for loyalty is born of insecurity and is thus more often demanded than engendered – a far more treacherous situation. Because it demanded, it must be seen to be believed and so nationalism concerns itself with the mechanics of loyalty and maintains a constant drive to quantify and qualify a people’s allegiance. For the nationalist, loyalty must be demonstrable.

Thus, the nationalist will obsess not just about loyalty itself, but the evidence thereof: a proudly sung song, a badge worn with pride, a symbol celebrated and cherished, all in the name of loyalty and, ultimately, all with the purpose of exposing those disloyal to a cause or shepherding into a collective guilt those with a weak constitution. Indeed, this can easily become its core business. Constantly it needs to be reassured that it is surrounded by devotion and that loyalty is infused into those institutions and systems it oversees. Nationalism is interested in trust only in so far as it is unwavering, in fidelity only in so far as it is unthinking and in judgment only in so far as it is uncritical.

One can see, then, why it is important that loyalty be principled and why patriotism is a more noble value. In being loyal to a principle one creates a detachment between the component parts of a democratic state and those ideals that underpin it, so that when it wavers from its founding provisions, one is far better placed to gauge and correct the behaviour and attitudes of those individuals responsible for its stewardship.

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