I remember some years ago reading from an online acquaintance about their experience in Saudi Arabia and recognizing that a political system that appears to be absolute from the outside is far more participatory and far more egalitarian when viewed from the inside. This is not an unusual experience. People are people, and when you have a reputation of being someone who is active and able in one’s service, it is generally easy to find that others are welcome to engage in pretty egalitarian relationships with others even when there is a formal gap of power and position and status between people. In this world there is much that needs to be done and few people who are willing to do it, and so those who are willing to serve the interests of the state or community at large tend to find themselves with shared interests with others with the same ethos of service.
I had a conversation this evening with an online friend of mine and he told me about the way that his family had tended to serve the state in Saudi Arabia, with most of his family (including a brother who was in the Royal Guard) serving in the military along with others who worked as teachers or who were engineers for Saudi Arabia’s oil company. Such a pattern of general service carries with it a high degree of loyalty to a ruling regime. We cannot help but feel better about those people we serve with, people who respect us, and people who demonstrate to us their care and competence through our shared experience of serving a community we care about. Those who are outside of that shared experience may very well have highly negative feelings about those in authority that those who see those authorities in their best moments in shared service simply will not countenance. The insider sees a different world than an outsider does.
What is it that allows people to see the world on the inside? Often, what allows us to see that world is sharing service of institutions with other people. What we see of people is often highly skewed. We can hear all kinds of nasty things about others–and other people will often tell some unpleasant things about us. What allows us to genuinely respect others is seeing them in action. We can see how someone behaves, how they react kindly to provocations and graciously to awkwardness and serve others. These are things we would never know without having personal understanding of people. We judge others largely because we do not know what they are about. The more that other people and us share experience and an approach, the more we are likely to want to justify them just as we normally justify ourselves.
Given the way that an ethos of service helps us to see leaders and institutions in a far better light than we would tend to view them from the outside, it remains of pivotal importance to choose the right institutions to serve. We can, if we are unwise, devote our loyalty to institutions that are not serving our best interests or others. We can feel it necessary to justify people and deeds that are truly monstrous, or risk our character leading us into dangerous and potentially fatal situations. An ethos of service is a good thing when we serve good institutions, but that is not always the case.