THE BLOG
06/08/2010 04:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coming to Grips with "The Technicality Generation"

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator from South Dakota, made a convincing case for the idea that people around his and my age, who were draft-eligible during the Vietnam War, created what he called "The Technicality Generation." In the article, he explained that, for many of us, we avoided being called up using technicalities in the law (student deferments, faked physical or psychiatric disabilities, etc.) while cloaking our aversion to serving in a pretense of idealism -- being morally against that war or all wars. He contrasts this with people who (like himself) opposed the war but served when called and others who opposed the war and either left the country or maintained Conscientious Objector status.

Pressler's point is not really about what anyone did or didn't do then -- it's actually more important than that. Psychologists have long been aware of the phenomenon called cognitive dissonance -- the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas. Studies of this phenomenon since the 1950's have concluded that people are driven to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, so that the two ideas come into harmony with each other (think Aesop's fable of the fox and the "sour grapes"). In the Vietnam Draft case, if a person holds himself to be a moral human being and at the same time knows he used the law to avoid serving (and as a result someone who was less equipped to use the law served in his stead), he will have to find a way to justify or rationalize his behavior. Pressler says, and I agree, that many people used the "letter of the law" as this justification. Technically they did nothing wrong, so their view of themselves as moral is undisturbed.

As Pressler points out, many of these people, who evaded service while falsely claiming idealism are now leaders in government and elite institutions, and, he goes on, "the concept of using legal technicalities to evade responsibility has been carried over to playing with derivatives, or to short -- changing shareholders. Once my generation got in the habit of saying one thing and believing another, it couldn't stop."

As an aside, I want to be clear that neither Pressler nor I are painting all those who did not serve as hypocrites, but in his experience as in mine, there were plenty of our classmates who espoused idealism in public but who, in private, would unselfconsciously admit that they did not want to take the time from their academic or career development or just plain did not want to go in harm's way. Eventually they began to believe their own hypocrisy and many came to believe that their "idealism" made them superior to those who did serve, and it is that resolution that is what Pressler refers to as "a deeply insidious thing" that too many in our generation did and got away with.

So we have the current spectacle of BP, Halliburton, et al. hiding behind the letter of the law and evading responsibility, environmental groups trying to block legitimate improvement projects, companies trying to circumvent environmental regulations, and on and on.

It's time to put a stop to the antics of "the technicality generation." The Western tradition of the rule of law has always made clear the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law, going back to King Solomon's demonstration ("cut the baby in half") of the difference and before. Laws and regulations are a means to an end, not an end in themselves -- they are there to ensure equality and "liberty and justice for all." Einstein said that "all means are but a blunt instrument unless they are infused with a living spirit." The letter of the law taken by itself is indeed blunt and, one might add, cold. When the law is infused with the living spirit of compassion, justice, and equality -- the values we will celebrate on Independence Day when we celebrate the founding of this great experiment in democracy -- it can prevent the kind of disasters we have seen over the past ten years or so. If we continue to be "technically correct" without being morally centered as well, I can't help but recall with dread the old proverb: If we don't change our direction, we're liable to get where we're headed.