I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with my 11th grade students recently. For those of you unfamiliar with the work, it is an allegory set during the Salem witch trials. Reputation is the primary theme of the work. Some of the characters are given the choice to confess witch craft (even though no crime was committed) and save themselves or maintain innocence and be hanged.
The protagonist chooses to maintain his innocence, even though he knows it means his death because he simply cannot bring himself to lie. At the height of the play, the judges ask him why he will not sign his name to the confession, and in anguish, knowing that he is forfeiting his life, he screams “because it is my name, because I cannot have another in my life, because I lie and sign myself to lies.”
He hangs, but his death (and the deaths of others who also maintained their innocence) cast doubt on the validity of the trials and eventually lead to their end.
But earlier in the play, John has an affair with Abigail Williams and inadvertently causes the entire affair to begin.
One of the many lessons of the play is that an unwillingness to own one’s mistakes publicly can cause profound suffering and unintended consequences. Proctor keeps his affair a secret and gives Abigail Williams the cover and motive to start and continue the hysteria. The judges bury all of their doubts because they fear admitting that they were fooled by teenage girls.
When John Proctor goes to hang, the ministers beg his wife to convince him to sign his confession, and she refuses, stating that her husband has found “his goodness now.” The conclusion of the play sees John taking a principled stand against tyranny. He loses his life for it, but the conclusion of the film is the first time John Proctor is at peace with himself. He’s admitted his affair and refused to admit to witch craft. His body will die, but his soul is cleansed. The person he is privately and the person he is publicly are the same person for the first time in the film.
Throughout the film, John, through being placed under enormous intrinsic and extrinsic pressure, develops integrity.
So naturally, I’ve been meditating a lot on what it means to have integrity. And I’ve been wondering if I would have the integrity to end my own life if I was made to do something against my values.
Let’s start with the first question: what does it mean to have integrity?
I think that integrity can be broken into three parts: consistency, earnestness, and honesty.
The person who is consistent is guided by their values, and their values are rooted in deep experience and belief. Followers will line up behind the consistent leader, even if they don’t agree with their every position. In a society where there is no objective truth and everything’s an argument, a person with consistency and values is such a breath of fresh air that they seem irresistible.
The person with consistency is predictable. A given input will solicit a given reaction every time. They appeal to our sense of fairness. They treat every person the same regardless of extrinsic circumstances because their judgement considers variables, but ultimately comes from the center of their being.
Earnestness is much harder to quantify, and perhaps harder to find in people, but earnestness is perhaps the value most lacking in our modern culture. Earnest people show deep conviction of feeling. They speak with purpose and meaning, and through their speech they inspire others to act. To a degree the earnest leader can become a target because they speak with intensity and sincerity. Integrity means that the public person and the private person are once. The person with integrity means what they say, and they don’t engage in platitudes or wrong speech.
But earnestness only means that you say what you mean. Honesty is the value that determines what a person says and when. Perhaps the hardest part of conducting yourself with integrity is being honest without being cruel. To be effective, honesty must be compassionate. The person who speaks truth without regard to feelings is an asshole. Honesty is like fire, it must be wielded carefully and responsibly. If fire is kept restrained by stones or iron, then it is a useful and powerful force. But if fire is spread willy nilly without thought of the future, then destruction is inevitable.
But tempering honesty with compassion turns it into a valuable tool, especially when spoken to figures with greater institutional power.