Absolute loyalty, but at what cost?

August 17, 2022 10:39
Photo: Reuters

It would be rather uncontroversial to suggest that loyalty is a virtue. It is, hopefully, equally uncontroversial to note that unquestioning, unyielding, and unconditional loyalty is a vice. Loyalty that breeds critical examination and reflection is an asset. Loyalty that invites blind, zealous toadying is not an asset. That much can be gleaned off the cult of boisterous followers and adherents to Trump’s bizarre cult of personality. Absolute loyalty these Trumpists have, but at what cost?

America is a country that has historically prided itself for its strong camaraderie and – despite the individualism underpinning its fabric – the common bond of devotion to the country and its founding principles. Till this very day, I harbour no doubts that American values, if implemented in full, with genuine candour and precision, could well serve the American people very, very well. Yet what we’re seeing now – with the chorus of sycophants joining in on the charade and propagation of rumours and lies over Trump’s antics – is effectively the ditching of the country for party, the eschewing of the people in favour of the elite.

Ironically, those who claim to stand by the grassroots and the people, are the very folks who have systemically deprived the people of a choice. It is the Trumpist Republicans who are seeking, still, to overturn a democratic election. And it is the rest of the country that must reckon with the havoc that this originally anodyne, now destructive movement has wrought upon America. That said, remember – absolute loyalty is seldom a virtue, even elsewhere.

Loyalty becomes dangerous, when it is wielded by those in positions of power and hierarchal authority to dictate what could be said – and what could not be said. There is oft this misconception that for one to be loyal to another, one must be deferential to the maximum, and refrain from any and all critical commentary. Compliments, or so it is asserted, are the sole means of loyalty. Praise – however hyperbolic and disingenuous – is to be welcome. Criticisms and challenges are to be dismissed as signs of insubordination and unruly raucousness. We must learn to love, to cherish, to enjoy unquestioningly. Any and all attempt to insert caveats and conditions, qualifiers and nuances, must be thrown out of the window. Only then is there loyalty; only then is there devotion.

Suffice to say, I find such thinking utter balderdash. If one is truly loyal to one’s people, one would not pave over the evident cracks in the pavement, and pretend that all is well and kumbaya. Nor, indeed, should one seek to deceive one’s people, as Trump has done with glee and menace. Finally, loyalty is a holistic concept – it requires us to orient ourselves around the people and causes to whom we are loyal: it does not ask us to parrot whatever is said by the others, and then claim that such parroting is itself virtuous. Harmful parroting is little more than self-serving careerism. And we have seen plenty of these examples in polities and governments in crisis over recent years.

Loyalty is equally unnerving, when one form of it is permitted to triumph over the other. We take the family to be the foremost cornerstone and pillar of communitarian life – not because we are closet patriarchy-apologists (we may well be though, given the validity of feminist critiques of the family). We take the family to be the structure and bedrock to our moral life – and this is a point agreed upon by Confucians and Neo-Rawlsians alike. To prioritise unduly one’s ostensible duties towards one’s state, over one’s family, may give rise to tokenistic applause from a momentary audience. Yet at the end of the time, the conniving and nefarious will of abandoning any and all human ties in exchange for that slight increase in proximity to power – is both tragic and reprehensible. If one is truly a virtuously loyal character, one must be loyal to all that matters – to one’s country, to one’s family, and, above all perhaps, to one’s good old conscience.

All that glitters is not gold. All that is loyal, may well be the antithesis of gold.

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Assistant Professor, HKU