I grew up believing a person was innocent until proven guilty. We all did. It was the backbone of American juris prudence, and the foundation of common, everyday relationships. When things didn’t look right, we chose to think the best until there was real evidence to believe otherwise. Apparently, the need for proof has become passé today. We’ve become a society of innuendo, nuanced negativity, investigative gossip, and outright slander. And it happens at every level, in every area, and on both sides. Think about it. For the past 25 years or so, every occupant of the White House has been cruelly treated by those who didn’t appreciate his policies. Charges of all sorts were thrown at him professionally, politically, and most of all, personally. We sat through hours of media coverage announcing every word anyone said that was in any way entertaining or titillating. Experts on both sides of an issue or episode harangued about any piece of news that was at all suspicious or could be made to appear so. Committees committed, forums formed, investigators investigated, pundits pontificated, columnists columnized, and hysteria grew. Invectives and popular indictments flew much faster than proof, while money was spent even faster trying to prove some indiscretion or crime. And what was the result? No proof. No evidence. No clarity, and no verdict. But, in the midst of all the smoke, mirrors, bragging and bluster, a nation changed for the worse. But it is not only the public media that has decided proof doesn’t matter. Our society, as a whole, has become one big gossip column. We can spew insults and innuendo without any basis in fact. And we’re good at it. We see what we want to see, believe whatever could hurt our opponents, and refuse to acknowledge any evil perpetrated by our heroes. And most of all, with our social media outlets, we can shoot off our mouths, propelling cannon balls of half-truths and untruths into the societal conversation with impunity. After all, the media are doing it all the time, and we’re just following suit. But where is the proof? Why is it permissible to destroy someone’s reputation without proof, without clear evidence of wrongdoing? And more to the point, what kind of person finds joy in destroying another’s life? Face it, we have made hatred a permissible motive for anger, gossip, slander, and many other weapons of personal destruction. We attack what we hate, and too often without any restraint or ethical consideration. Now, there is a huge difference between disagreement and hatred. It is legitimate, indeed necessary, for disagreements – concerning ideals, policies, convictions, beliefs, and ethics – to be discussed at length by reasonable, tolerant people for order to continue in a pluralistic society. But I wonder if we’re losing this skill altogether. Where are those for whom facts matter, and an opponent is worthy of a hearing? We’ve become more sensitive than sensible. More tribal than neighborly. More conniving than caring. We are a selfishly motivated, easily offended, narcissistic nation whose loudest voices are too often the least helpful. Yes, I believe in free speech, but as with all freedoms, there are ethical responsibilities attached to it. Legally, you can say whatever you want in most cases. But, unless basic ethical norms provide the guardrails on our conversations, our pronouncements, our declarations, and our verbal indictments, free speech will become the knife we’re plunging in our own backs. Paul the Apostle put it this way in the Bible: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” All I’m arguing for is this. Disagree with whatever and whoever you wish, but please, voice your opposition respectfully and truthfully, making sure what you say is factual and fair. Think for yourself, and throw everything you read or hear – even from your own tribal leaders – up against the grid of truth to see what makes it through. Don’t be a pawn in someone else’ game. Be a person of integrity and ethical conviction, and if you can’t do that, then for the sake of the rest of us … please shut up. David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.