By David Hegg
In the 1988 movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character laments over her inability to respond to a mean-spirited conversationalist with equally mean words. At an important point in the movie, however, she finds this ability and unleashes on another person some well-deserved animosity. She describes the experience to an online friend like this:
“And an amazing thing happened. I was able, for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And, of course, afterwards, I felt terrible, just as you said I would. I was cruel, and I’m never cruel. And even though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man — to him, I am just a bug to be crushed — but what if it did? No matter what he’s done to me, there is no excuse for my behavior.”
Apparently our society has moved miles past such sentiment. Today it is all the rage to be cruel, hurling personal insults and characterizing opponents in the worst possible way. As never before, civil discourse has eroded into a slough of hateful name-calling and unvarnished disrespect. Worse, those involved seem unashamed to be participants in such a malice-filled, derogatory activity.
We see this every day as our nation’s leaders harangue about the political topic du jour. More and more we watch any hope of collaborative solutions sink beneath the vitriolic verbal skirmishes that roll like a polluted tide over the very people tasked with finding a way out of our pressing problems.
I also see it in the current theological battles that are raging between those who publicly declare they represent the Prince of peace.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for truth. Truth must be unflinchingly presented, promoted and courageously defended against all attempts to degrade or upend it. But for centuries civilized discourse has been the high road, even among those who disagreed violently, and even harbored personal animosity toward their opponents. The fact is, throughout history the best have known that conversational heat is the enemy of intellectual light.
As a pastor I have had my share of criticism. When you stand and represent God, and call on people to obey his Word, conflict is inevitable and criticism becomes almost an everyday event. I don’t find this wearying when it comes wrapped in an attitude of partnership, helping us all be better at loving Christ. But when it comes riding in on hateful, angry and cruel words, it hurts way more than it helps. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.
In the study of logic we learn early on the fallacy known as ad hominem. Literally, “against the man,” this fallacy simply means that demeaning the messenger actually does nothing to falsify the message. Those who can’t argue the issue often resort to attacking those who hold it, as though a person with flaws could not, at the same time, speak the truth.
Frankly, I am sick of it. I am sick of hearing our politicians spew disrespectful garbage about their opponents, on both sides of the aisle. I am sick of hearing pastors and theologians demean the very truth they hold by promoting it with hateful invective aimed at their opponents’ character. And personally, I am weary of being the pin cushion for every disgruntled person who disagrees with my opinions, decisions, or beliefs.
How about we all just take a deep breath, grab a cup of coffee together as intelligent, civilized people, and actually listen to one another before lobbing atomic word bombs at each other’s soul.
After all, aren’t we supposed to love our neighbors and our enemies? Seems to me that includes everyone, and – by the way – like it or not, we’re in this together.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.