I have been reflecting on an interesting question lately. Here it is: Is it ethically responsible to engage in activity you would angrily criticize in another person simply because you believe you are right?
For example, would you champion, in someone you appreciate, a behavior you would denigrate in one you disliked? Would you applaud, for example, your friend’s rude driving if it got you someplace sooner, while you would rail against such action on the part of another driver?
Regardless of your answer personally, you can’t deny we are seeing this become standard practice all around us. It is most noticeable in the political realm, where hypocritical criticism seems to fill the news reports on a daily basis.
I hope you are chuckling along with me when a leader of one party bashes his opposing counterpart for behavior his own party considered beneficial only a few months ago. It would be comedy gold if it were not tragically diminishing the benefit we are supposed to derive from our elected officials.
But far more telling is the way this kind of ethical hypocrisy has leeched into the soul of everyday living among us all. All too often, we allow ourselves to be angry, mean-spirited, and downright rude, all the while giving ourselves a pass based on our conviction we have the right to be so.
I’ve taken to calling this myopic agendaitis. Yes, I made it up, but I think it speaks to why our society is taking this dangerous turn. Simply put, we have decided our agenda, our point of view, is so right and our opponents’ so wrong that we are allowed to do, say, and be anything necessary to further our agenda.
Our desire to win, to prevail in the marketplace of ideas, has narrowed our perspective so powerfully we no longer can understand the value of opposing arguments nor believe they have any right to be heard.
Consequently, at the first sign of any opposing rhetoric or action, we lash out with an offensive defense. That is, we defend our position, not with arguments, sound logic, and evidence, but with demeaning language, innuendo, and ad hominem sarcasm. And we never consider that, were the situation reversed, we would immediately take our opponents to task for their attitudes and actions.
If you find yourself at all pictured in the preceding two paragraphs, here is some food for thought. First of all, don’t fall into the ad hominem trap. That is, regardless of a person’s personal deficiencies, we must still interact with their arguments. You can’t dismiss someone simply because they don’t pass your character or likeability tests.
Secondly, just because your opponent is committed to views diametrically opposed to yours doesn’t entitle you to write them off without listening, evaluating, and fairly responding to their arguments. Personally, I have learned much from those with whom I disagree simply because their viewpoint has uncovered holes in my thinking that needed to be changed or shored up.
Lastly, all this divisiveness hasn’t helped one bit. Never has it been more true of us that you can be right, and also be so very wrong. Holding the right view never entitles us to act unethically, or engage in unrighteous, demeaning speech and behavior.
I am not suggesting we go along to get along. Neither do I believe the way forward is to compel, through legislation or societal pressure, everyone to believe the same thing.
What I do believe is we must become better at the way we fight against opposing ideas. We must regain the depth of character that refuses to descend into the pit of anger and insult to win the argument.
We aren’t the first society to face the dangers of competitive cannibalism. The Apostle Paul warned the citizens of ancient Galatia to resist the temptation to engage in verbal war against their neighbors.
He put it this way. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
Sadly, it seems too many of us are on the “bite and devour” path today. Let’s see what we can do to offer a better way – a fairer way – to fight. If we can make our disagreements more agreeable, maybe our democracy has a fighting chance to make a real difference in the lives of real people, for the right reasons.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.