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Loyalty-Is it truly a good 'trait'?

Through our articles, we’ve talked about the foundations of Tae Kwon-Do, including the ethos and philosophies behind martial arts. Most martial arts are built on a foundation of trust, respect and courtesy, with so much more than just physical movement and self-defence being involved. Tae Kwon-Do is no different; it not only gives students the ability to defend themselves and improve their physical condition and motor skills, but it also teaches a form of ‘spiritual’ wellbeing, and embeds into us the basic moral and ethical practices that people should follow.

Tae Kwon-Do has five tenets that students must know and follow (for those who do not know what a tenet is, it is a belief, view and a sort of guideline); courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. In short, be kind, honest, never give up, control your own actions and take responsibility for them, and be brave and courageous. It is hard to disagree with these ethics, and it is a good creed to follow, but can martial arts and its values be summed up into five bullet points?

Although these are the base things that are taught (and I believe that if you follow the tenets then you will be a fine human being indeed), there are so many more threads woven into the rich martial arts tapestry. Some are simple, some are ethical, and some are things that people have learned themselves and taken from their experiences in martial arts.

However, one of the main ones that is mentioned a lot is loyalty. When people think of loyalty, they think of a fantastic and desirable trait and quality. I hear it mentioned all of the time, from whether a friend or partner is being loyal, to footballers being accused of having no loyalty when they move clubs for twice the salary and a lovely sign-on bonus.

I have heard loyalty being mentioned as the ‘6th tenet’ of Tae Kwon-Do, and people put a lot of stock into it. However, I think that loyalty has a lot of connotations, and can be misconstrued and actually be a bad trait if people put too much emphasis on it. This isn’t to say that I think loyalty is a bad thing, in fact far from it! I just think that it is a grey area, and one that should be considered and applied differently to situations before people willingly pledge themselves.

So, what is the definition of loyalty? According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are two. The first one is ‘the quality of being loyal’, e.g “his extreme loyalty to the Crown”. The other, more explanatory definition offered is ‘a strong feeling of support or allegiance’.

To me, these two explanations are contradictory, and I’ll say why I think that they are through this article (and if you disagree, please comment in the section below). Firstly, we’ll start with the definition.

‘A strong feeling of support or allegiance’

Quite self-explanatory. If you support something or someone, you stick by whatever it is that you support, thus pledging loyalty to it. There are many things that can make you feel loyalty; people, identity, duty, ideals, groups (like football clubs), family… I could go on. There are thousands of reasons why loyalty may be inspired in someone.

But to me, loyalty should be only given if you are ‘inspired’ to give it. For example, I am loyal to TSX Tae Kwon-Do, and I am loyal to my senior instructor without a doubt. But why am I loyal to these? Is it to be expected of me just because I am a student under my senior instructor, or because I teach for TSX Tae Kwon-Do, or because I am a student of TSX?

No. Absolutely not, but the loyalty I give was inspired within me to give it. I consciously made the decision because I believe that TSX is a well-run organisation based on the foundations of martial arts, integrity and I see week-in and week-out when talking to or meeting other instructors that all decisions are made with the students in mind. I gave my loyalty to my senior instructor because I believe in him, and like thousands of others he’s made a massively positive impact on me for the better. That, to me, is deserving of loyalty and trust.

Did my senior expect it of me though? No. And that is the key thing. Loyalty is a strong feeling that is learned, not something that can ever be expected. The definition is “a strong feeling”, and that is exactly what it is. When I first started out, if my senior instructor was an idiot and teaching me about aggression and power and didn’t show any of the tenets and ethical foundations of martial arts in his actions, I’d like to think I’d move clubs for that “feeling” would never have grown.

Now, loyalty can be expected in certain situations. For example in a romantic relationship, but you can also argue that also comes from a “strong feeling”, which you have grown for your significant other. Although, being faithful isn’t necessarily loyalty, it’s your own integrity and morality, so you could argue that being loyal in this situation isn’t just motivated by loyalty itself.

However, I’m not necessarily saying that loyalty is fleeting either, because it absolutely is not. If somebody earns your loyalty, as soon as you don’t like something that they do, you can’t just ‘give it up’, so to speak. To me, if that feeling inspired loyalty in you, loyalty means standing by the side of those that inspire it in you.

Like Sir Davos says in Game of Thrones, “loyalty means telling hard truths”. If you are loyal to someone, you cannot merely just break your loyalty to them. If you are truly loyal, you would stand by them and their decisions, and even if you disagree with them, you support them whilst trying to show them why it is wrong. Loyalty isn’t a feeling that can be taken away, hence why it is labelled a feeling that we hold inside of us.

Where is the line drawn though? For example, if I am loyal to my instructor, and he told me to punch a stranger in the face who was walking down the street, would I do it? This seems pretty cut and dried, but is it? I would say no, for it would go against my conscience to do so, but does that make me disloyal?

I don’t think it would make me disloyal, and this leads on to the point that I want to make in this article. The difference between loyalty and servitude. I wouldn’t punch the stranger because it is immoral and the wrong thing to do, but I would still be loyal to my instructor and support him, but supporting someone can sometimes be standing up to them, and showing them why they are wrong.

Although, in this instance, if we take it into a different context, can we bring trust in as a deciding factor in this decision? If you are loyal to someone, then you also trust them. I trust my instructor, and if he insisted that I punch this stranger in the face, the person would probably turn out to be a known serial killer. However, I am deliberately playing devil’s advocate here, and that is also another question that loyalty raises.

If you trust someone, does that mean that loyalty allows them to take your conscience out of your hands and make your decisions for you? That, to me, is more like servitude, and that brings me onto the first Oxford Dictionary definition offered for loyalty.

‘The quality of being loyal’

Is loyalty a quality/trait in people? Should it be? I don’t think it should. In my opinion, if there was nobody who inspired loyalty in me, then I wouldn’t be loyal to anyone, and although that doesn’t sound like the nicest of things to say, I think it is how it should be. Loyalty cannot be defined as a desirable trait in people or others, but instead something we feel in others. And this is why I don’t think it could ever be labelled as the ‘sixth tenet’.

The other tenets are basic human qualities that help us become good people, for example being respectful and honest. Loyalty cannot be put into that category. It isn’t a quality, it is something like trust that we have to give, and not something that can ever be expected.

Which brings me back to the example that the Oxford Dictionary gave. “His extreme loyalty to the Crown”. Now, there are two sides to this coin as well (did I already mention that I thought loyalty was a grey area?). Chong Mong Chu, the great man that penned the words “I shall not serve a second master, though I may be crucified a hundred times” was a man loyal to the ‘Crown’, his King and country.

He was close to the King, and he showed the highest form of loyalty that was unbreakable, which shows him as a remarkable man, especially as he died for it (he was assassinated with an iron hammer on the Sonjuk Bridge by a rival dynasty). His loyalty wasn’t a quality/trait, but in my opinion he showed remarkable integrity, indomitable spirit and resilience, traits that loyalty inspired to be so steadfast and strong.

The other side to the loyalty coin, in this instance, is where loyalty is confused with servitude. Since time began, there have been and continues to be people that want others to obey their orders and do as they desire. One of the ways people have tried to convince others to do so is by mixing loyalty with servitude, and declaring loyalty a desirable trait that should be expected in all good people.

To better explain it, I like to use the modern remake of the classic tale Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. King John, whose actions are destroying a country and practically enslaving his own ‘people’, claims that “a King shouldn’t have to barter for the loyalty of which each subject owes him”.

To me, that doesn’t sound very much like he’s ‘inspired’ loyalty, he is stating that loyalty is a trait everyone should show and that means doing as they’re told and accepting it, as they ‘owe’ him their loyalty and allegiance.

This is where loyalty becomes dangerous. Although I keep mentioning them, to use the previous article’s example of the Crusades (I learned about them in detail previously, so it makes for an easier example for me to use), thousands of men started a war because the Pope at the time told them to, and they followed it loyally.

However, that isn’t loyalty, that is servitude, and servitude can be dangerous indeed. Servitude is defined as ‘the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful’ by the Oxford Dictionary. I’m sure you can think of hundreds of examples where this definition applies, but also where those more “powerful” disguise servitude as loyalty to manipulate people into servitude itself.

Removing your own conscience and allowing someone to make decisions for you is servitude, but often those in power positions call it ‘disloyalty’, and throughout the years, it has also been labelled as ‘treason’ in some cases. In fact, in many cases throughout history, people have been labelled traitors and disloyal when in fact they were actually loyal to their ideals and to the people of their countries. To use King John as an example, when Magna Carta was created, there were many who branded the barons who forced it through as ‘disloyal’ and ‘traitors’, but in fact they were loyal to the ideals of freedom and their people that they governed, refusing servitude.

I could go on, but it is a point that I feel has to be made and looked at in-depth. Loyalty can sometimes be misconstrued, and is so often confused for servitude without people realising it. Loyalty, though, isn’t a trait or

quality, and I would be wary of anyone that demanded loyalty from me. If it is demanded, it is servitude, but if it is something earned by inspiring it as a feeling within you, then it then becomes loyalty, and true loyalty is strong and unbreakable.

To conclude, I don’t believe that loyalty can be demanded. It can be a great thing, but only if applied correctly to situations. As an instructor, I would never demand loyalty, or mention it to my students as something they should feel towards me. Once, when discussing with one of my students a potential change of venues, they said “don’t worry, wherever you go we will follow”. That truly warmed me to hear it, but I would never have demanded that from them.

So, if someone tells you that loyalty should be expected of you, and that you should automatically give it or accuse you of being disloyal, think about it objectively. “Am I truly being disloyal?”, “are they asking me this so I go along with what they say?”. If you use your own thought processes, you’ll know the answer. True loyalty is something that is inspired, and is unwavering and strong like Chong Mong Chu’s. If I didn’t feel that way about someone, I wouldn’t give my loyalty, because I think that’s the only feeling of loyalty that truly matters.

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