I am skeptical about loyalty. I’m not normally one to inspire it, and when I have given it I have not often received it in turn. It’s important for me to say that because I realize it colors the argument I am about to make:
Loyalty is not an inherently positive character trait.
My wife, it must be said, is extremely loyal. She is loyal to the point of selflessness and sometimes selfless to the point of damage. Her loyalty has hurt her numerous times. She works to temper her loyalty with self-care, to say “no” even when it’s hard to do so, but the draw of social validation is difficult to ignore.
We are two very opposite extremes, but both our cases make me question the purpose and value of loyalty. And so I’m here to argue that loyalty is not in fact a positive trait.
In order to have this discussion, we certainly need to be clear on what loyalty is and what it is not.
The most common words that appear in the various definitions you can find online are allegiance, support, faithfulness, and duty. Most of the definitions also describe loyalty as either obligation or unwavering firmness, and it is this connotation of obligation and immutability that is exactly my problem with it.
Loyalty is always described as a directed quality. One feels loyal towards something or someone. There is no such thing as an ambient loyal character trait. And this brings me to my first point:
It’s fairly clear that the recipient of our loyalty is the one who benefits from it – they receive our allegiance and support. But then why do we express loyalty? What do we hope to get out of it (if anything)?
In most cases, we hope to receive appreciation, trust, or even some tangible reward for showing loyalty. And often we do. But the problem with this arrangement is that it is a clear differential of power. The loyal person is a supplicant, while the recipient can choose to provide or withhold those benefits however they like.
Because here’s the truth – this is not a rational exchange. The supplicant must keep providing loyalty regardless of the outcome, because that is what it means to be loyal. This is the obligation part. “Loyalty” that depends on constant feedback is not loyalty at all. It’s a transaction. (To be fair, sometimes loyalty is broken in this other direction – we express loyalty and demand appreciation and compensation for it or threaten to remove that loyalty. But clearly that’s not a positive approach either.)
The expectation of loyalty is one of constant appeal to authority. It is an argument that the good of the recipient takes some level of precedence over our own or over that of others. A Harvard study found that arguments of loyalty were consistently persuasive in modifying behavior regardless of how they affected personal benefit, personal ethics, or rational consideration. It is an inherent bias. Loyalty suppresses rational discourse.
Who are We Loyal To?
Part of the reason this is an issue is that we don’t even build loyalty in a rational way. Rarely do we think to ourselves, “This person or organization has done [x] and is therefore deserving of my loyalty.” Instead, we tend to make that connection emotionally and then rationalize why we have it. (I’ve talked about this before.)
Our loyalty is typically built through association – either direct or presumed. We are loyal to the people and things that we want to associate ourselves with, and – not so coincidentally – those people and things are usually closely related to our own experiences. Because of this, people and things that are outside of our awareness can’t earn our loyalty. So we build this bubble of loyalty based on proximity and personal experience. And then when someone or something in that bubble is attacked from the outside, we defend it irrationally. Loyalty sustains tribalism.
But why am I even talking about this?
The topic of loyalty has been on my mind lately because of how it affects behavior in communities – in my case, the ones surrounding tabletop gaming. It pervades industry decisions, community decisions, and personal decisions. And typically the people who benefit are the ones who have managed to grow a following – the ones with significant social capital – while the people who suffer are the outsiders – even when they are the ones who have been wronged.
Bad actors are not always punished, and the injured are not always protected. Quite often we see people in our community rise in chorus to support someone accused of bad actions regardless of the validity or severity of those accusations. And sometimes the opposite happens – the community quickly turns on someone who is accused in a way that is neither valid nor severe (or, far too often, when they are the ones accusing), simply because the community as a whole is not loyal to that person. Neither of these is positive or productive. Loyalty inhibits justice and equity.
People are treated differently based on the loyalty they receive, and that loyalty is dependent on those bubbles of awareness and proximity. So our communities tend to mimic the structure of those bubbles, keeping the outsiders outside and the insiders inside.
What’s the Alternative?
By now, some of you are almost certainly ready to point out that what I’m describing is an aberration, a twisting of the positive aspects of loyalty. But I would like to suggest that, while loyalty can be applied in a positive way, those positive applications of loyalty rely on the good intentions of the recipient. Loyalty is therefore at best neutral – it molds itself to the moral compass of the person or institution who commands it.
So what I want to do is remove the obligation. I dislike the idea of “allegiance” because that indicates that I am taking a side based on who or what is on that side rather than the value or truth they bring. If I am to be a good friend, I should always be questioning my friends. That doesn’t mean harassing them – it simply means holding them to the same standards I hold strangers to.
Rather than earning or demanding loyalty, I want to act and ask others to act with personal integrity. Doing so builds mutual trust, but without a presumption of support. You may trust me if and only if I continue to behave with integrity. If I act badly, I am responsible for resolving that, and you are not obliged to support or defend me. But at the same time, I should be treated no worse or better than anyone else who acted the same way.
And there’s more – when we move away from a dependence on loyalty, we open ourselves up to the value of other people and other ideas. Loyalty narrows our focus, while equity widens it.
For instance, one might argue that a positive effect of loyalty is “standing by a friend in their time of need,” but that’s just compassion and empathy. Loyalty makes us selectively choose our targets of compassion and empathy, but isn’t everyone deserving of them? Shouldn’t we be looking beyond our bubble for more people who need compassion and empathy? Once we escape the bonds of loyalty, we can provide compassion that is based more on need than on our preference for the individual.
This is probably a larger topic than one (already lengthy) blog post can cover, and I know that some people may already be mentally building lists of other positives of loyalty. All I ask is that you consider this question – In the scenarios you’re imagining, is it really loyalty that causes the positive effect, or is it some other trait like integrity or compassion? Does loyalty really inspire us to greater things, or does it keep us from using our gifts in situations where they are needed? Does loyalty free us or confine us?
I realize this is a radical take, and I am willing to hear arguments that bring in additional nuance, but I believe that the negative effects are clear and must be addressed.