Character counts ~ some of the time

Dear President Trump,

Happy “National Character Counts Week”! Apparently this is the 26th consecutive year that both the President and the US Senate have declared this week as THE WEEK we are all supposed to pay extra special attention to the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. I was previously completely unaware of this national ‘thou shalt’ week and I love, love, love that it was brought to my attention by an editorial about you (Dana Milbank’s WP piece this morning “The Day Irony Died”).

This year the NCC website ( notes:

“It is clear that the eight sentences making up the Declaration is (sic) as profound and pertinent as it was (sic x 2) nearly 30 years ago.”

Gee, I wonder why they would think to say that? I also wonder who didn’t proofread it?

In your NCC declaration you trumpeted Melania’s BE BEST initiative “promoting the importance of the values of kindness, compassion, and respect.” Apparently, though, along with the emoluments clause and pretty much every other Constitutional guardrail meant to check the Executive Branch, you are somehow magically exempt from following the BE BEST admonitions and certainly seem to be getting a pass when it comes to upholding the Six Pillars of Character.

Indeed, no one would, for a nanosecond, think to put you and the Six Pillars together in the same sentence affirmatively. None of your GOP props could look a child in the eye and convincingly say something like “President Trump is a wonderful role model for kids because he is so consistently fair, caring, respectful of others, trustworthy, and responsible. If you were to follow his example, you would be a terrific citizen of the world.” Can you even imagine anyone saying that and not being smote on the spot?

In addition to the grammatical issues pointed out above, there’s a funny little tic, an unfortunate inconsistency that probably only a nerdy psychologist would catch in how the NCC website talks about character. The website references “core ethical traits” even though in point #3 it says:

“People do not automatically develop good moral character; therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct.”

Perhaps it was just an imprecision-slip and they really mean “core ethical characteristics” or something like that because they are really describing something much more state-like than trait-like. I just found a 2019 review of the psychology of morality in Personality and Social Psychology Review where the authors frame morality (which I think is a reasonable proxy for core ethical characteristics) as being a socially constructed set of guidelines that people need to learn exist and then learn to adhere to. In other words, people aren’t born innately knowing that it isn’t ok to gobble down their own and then take the yummy looking cookie from the kid sitting next to them or to take all the yummy looking cookies on the plate. Rather, they have to learn such boundaries from adults or from dealing with other kids who also want some of the cookie action and aren’t having it that Junior gets all of them just because he wants them.

The other issue worth pointing out is that if ethics and morality are indeed more state-like than trait-like, it means that they are at least somewhat context dependent, which means people are more likely to shave off ethical considerations when it’s expedient for them to do so – like when they don’t think they’ll be caught or don’t think they’ll be held accountable or when the rewards of unethical behavior are just too overwhelming to resist (or all of the above, right dude?). It’s pretty obvious, but one’s character is really about what one does when no one is looking and when one likely could get away with morally questionable or unethical (illegal, cruel, disrespectful, uncaring, etc.) behavior. This is likely not a test that very many people pass all the time, but thankfully most of us do pass it most of the time and I am so looking forward to the day when we have a POTUS who is clearly, unequivocally part of this majority.

May we be safe from morally corrupt leaders.
May we be willing to resist such “leadership” and the corrupt systems that encourage and enable it.
May we agree that it is unhealthy and confusing for unethical leaders to be allowed to talk about building children’s character.
May you not start a war in the wake of William Taylor’s damning testimony.

Tracy Simpson

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