On Loyalty

Our beleaguered Mayor of Toronto has been in a heap of trouble lately, much of it his own doing, but an equal amount due to the deliberate attempt by his foes on council and in the media to continually portray him in the worst possible light, thus distracting him from governing effectively. While Ford’s troubles at his own hands, be they drink, food, drugs, or a refusal to take advice, his travails at the hands of his adversaries are sadly par for the course in the modern political era. Yet there is an additional source of Ford’s troubles that are neither his own doing nor politics as normal. I refer to the appalling lack of loyalty amongst his inner circle. The very people who pledged their loyalty to Ford during the election and the first couple of years of his term have almost all suddenly abandoned ship when it appeared the ship was in the midst of capsizing. Now, one cannot fault many of those people, who have their own families to support and futures to worry about, for leaving his employ to seek greener, and possibly calmer, pastures. Such self-preservation is not itself an act of betrayal. However, the willingness to speak to the media, in particular the Toronto Star, the powerful media outlet that has made the decimation of the Ford administration its raison d’etre, is the ultimate act of disloyalty. These individuals certainly had no interest in publicly badmouthing the mayor when times were good and when they felt their own resumes would be enhanced by their association with Mayor Ford. These individuals are a symptom of the larger problem in business, politics, and even day to day friendships, specifically a lack of loyalty in favour of one’s immediate gratification.

One of my favourite questions to ask of individuals when I am getting to know them and one of my favourite dinner party questions is: What is the characteristic you most value in your friends? My answer is always the same and has been since I was a teenager…loyalty.

Loyalty is  the principled notion that you can and will stand by your friend, spouse, business partner, or colleague through thick and thin, through good times and bad. Sadly, in a post-consumerist society marked by the narcissism of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and reality TV, loyalty now seems as quaint as family picnics on Sunday or virginity until marriage. This is truly a sad fact. Looking out for one’s best interests needn’t necessarily mean throwing someone else overboard. And when taking care of one’s own interests conflicts with loyalty, loyalty ought to win out.

This idea of loyalty as an absolute virtue raises some ethical dilemmas from time to time, but even these quandaries can be disposed of in a manner that rises above the conflict in competing values. For example, take the all too common scenario of your best friend admitting to a crime, stepping out on her spouse or of cheating their boss or on a test. Your friend has run afoul of a value or values that you hold at least a dear as loyalty. How to resolve this seeming value system showdown? Which value triumphs? I have always felt the answer is actually quite simple, and need not involve the sacrifice of either of the conflicting virtues. I would approach that person, explain my concerns with their transgressions, and encourage them to come clean, turn themselves in, get treatment etc. You have thus not only not been disloyal, but doubly demonstrated your loyalty- first by not giving them up, and secondly by encouraging them to do what is right, you may have forced them to confront their demons and start a fresh path.

I am fortunate to have many friends I have accumulated over the years, most of whom have been around for 25 or 30 years, since high school or university. Over the years, the strength of many of these friendships has waned as we become busy with careers, kids, families, mortgages, and the often inevitable distance that now separates us as a result of career or marriage related relocation. In some cases the passage of time and our different directions have left us with nothing in common except the past. Yet the friendships survive because of a sense of loyalty to one another. In simple terms, this means I may not see you for years, speak to you for months, yet when you call me for help, if it is within my power to do so, I will do my utmost even at great sacrifice of time and often money. The only reciprocity is my knowing without a shadow of a doubt that you would do the same for me.

In the course of my career I have represented many criminal law clients, and my dealings with the constabulary have developed in me a tremendous disrespect for the institution of policing. I think the way officers will lie to back one another up is an affront to our justice system and to the very Charter on which it is balanced. Yet I must confess a grudging admiration for the loyalty these officers show to their colleagues.

It is often said that there is no honour among thieves, except as most professionals involved in the criminal justice system will attest, organized crime specifically, and lesser criminals generally, have a heightened sense of loyalty. I have seen many clients plea out and accept the consequences rather than rat out their friends. It is also worthy of note that next to pedophiles, the most hated inmates in jail (and those next in need of solitary confinement for protection) are those perceived to have been disloyal. The snitches.

When the criminal underworld employs a greater familiarity with loyalty than the political and business world upon which we rely to run our country, we ought to all be concerned. And perhaps take stock of our own lives and what, if any, sacrifices we would make for loyalty to those who have earned it from us.