Yes, it has come to this. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas season is a pre-unethical condition, getting worse every year. (Pre-unethical conditions are situations that experience teaches us deserve early ethics alarms, since the stage is set for habitual bad conduct.) The financial stresses on the public and the business community in 2010 will only fuel the creeping tendency to ignore the moral and ethical values that are supposed to underlie the winter holidays—charity, gratitude, generosity, kindness, love, forgiveness, peace and hope—for the non-ethical considerations that traditionally battle them for supremacy: avarice, selfishness, greed, self-pity, and cynicism. Combine this with the ideological and political polarization in today’s America and the deterioration of mutual respect and civility, and the days approaching Christmas are likely to become an ethical nightmare…unless we work collectively to stop that from happening.
Retail stores set the standard, as they have for a couple of years now, by abandoning the Thanksgiving tradition of leaving one day for employees and the rest of the public to gather with their families in faith, gratitude, or just the spirit of love and fellowship. Millions of Americans were willing to chuck the symbolic values of Thanksgiving to be sure to get bargain prices on wide-screen TV’s and videogames. Next came the line-jumpers, the fights over merchandise, and the near riots. People who had just arrived for a Black Friday Toys ‘R’ Us sale in Wisconsin charged ahead of a line that had waited hours, causing a stampede (Ethics tip: if you are going to hold such a sale, it is irresponsible bordering on criminal not to have crowd control measures in place outside the store).
Charity? As discussed here, various chains have decided to ban or severely limit seasonal charities’ on-premises solicitations, in accommodating customers who found them annoying. Those customers are the early troops of the large army of holiday spoilers, including the parents who threaten to sue schools who have students singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or reading “The Night Before Christmas,” and who regard “Merry Christmas!” as a politically incorrect greeting, as well as the Christmas warriors who are determined to make community governments miserable by fighting to have manger scenes in the town square.
Add to them the whimsy-challenged fun-vandals, often grade school teachers, who feel it is their mission in life to make sure no child over the age of four believes in Santa Claus, and the soul-dead radio programmers, who have collectively decided that traditional Christmas carols, some of the loveliest music in the Western canon, are controversial and should be dumped in favor of endless versions of “Santa Baby,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Our ethics alarms should be ringing as loud as sleigh bells. Every one of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, should remind ourselves that this time of year that causes so many people to succumb to despair, combativeness and selfishness is also an opportunity to embrace, re-establish and celebrate ethical values. Make a pledge to be cheerful and forgiving, even when we are provoked. Let’s not start arguments; let’s end them. Try to make others happy—not just those we want to impress or owe something to, but as many people as we can, strangers and friends alike. Use the season as an excuse to heal old grievances, and revive damaged friendships.
Give something, anything, to someone in need. Show the mail carrier, the 7-11 clerk, and all those people you deal with throughout the year that they aren’t just faceless props to you, but a part of your life.
Read the Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (you can find a link to it on Ethics Alarms), out loud if possible. Watch a “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Homecoming.” Listen to Nat, Gene, Dean and Burl. Hear Bing sing “White Christmas,”of course, and remember that the song was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin, who celebrated the holiday because of the virtues it symbolized, and because he wanted his children to share in the cultural experience.
Most of all, like Irving, try to find ways to make the holidays magical for children. One inspiring role model is Alek O. Komarnitsky, who combines a Christmas light display that can be controlled by visitors to his website with fundraising on behalf of Celiac disease research.
It is hard, very hard, to think about doing the right thing every day, all year long. Having one season that focuses our attention, through music, stories, movies, literature, traditions and memories, on being the best we can be to everyone is a gift to civilization and the species. Let’s not let it slip away, and become an ugly time that brings out our basest instincts.
The ethics alarms are ringing.