By David Hegg
As I have watched, listened, and grieved the erosion of civility in society among those who make and report the news, the course we’ve taken has finally become clear.
It used to be that criticism was confined to what a person did, what they said, or how they appeared. When some local or national figure acted unseemly, or spouted pronouncements that didn’t make sense, or made promises they couldn’t keep, when some movie star walked the red carpet in some absurd getup, their actions were critiqued as unwise, foolish, careless, manipulative, shocking or any of a host of other adjectives that labeled their actions in a negative way. They were hounded for their words, their obvious lack of knowledge, their preposterous posture or some other obvious flaw.
What I’m getting at is this. It was understood that good people can make mistakes, can say and do things that are unacceptable to some, and generally get themselves in hot water especially when they live in the public eye where everything they do, say, or wear is recorded, reported and critiqued. But at one time, we as a nation critiqued their mistakes and left it at that.
Of course, over time when someone kept making mistakes, impossible promises, ridiculous assertions, and regularly acted in ways that were misleading, shocking and even immoral, critique moved from actions to character.
We see quite a bit of that today, and it is only natural. We all make mistakes from time to time. We all misspeak, fudge the truth and act inappropriately. And, we should be called out for those transgressions simply because we don’t want to act that way, and those who love us don’t want that from us either.
But, when mistakes become the norm, when duplicitous or shocking or manipulative behavior become the contour of life, it is reasonable to suggest that these actions no longer register in the column of human error. They speak to a deeper problem. They evidence a flawed character where self-protection and self-promotion have overcome common decency.
We see this all too often today. We’ve largely gone from judging actions to castigating character. What used to be reported as a mistake is now declared to be a character flaw, and the language is getting dirtier and dirtier. For example, that person didn’t just spin the truth, he’s a liar. And that politician didn’t just take undue advantage of her position, she’s an arrogant elitist. And they don’t really care about people, they’re just manipulative power-hungry tyrants pandering for votes.
What I’m trying to show is the evolution of our divisive rhetoric, and the corresponding erosion of civil critique We used to critique actions. But now we jump right to character. And that’s not the end of the road.
In the past few years we have moved from critiquing actions, to decrying character, and now finally, to impugning a person’s nature. I can say it simply: Those we don’t like are not just foolish or even flawed in their character. They are evil. They are by nature evil human beings and should never have a place in our world.
If you’ve been playing with open eyes and an open mind you’ve seen national figures say their opponents should be shot, run over and left for dead. We’ve heard that some hope their opponents die of COVID-19, or spend the rest of their lives behind bars because they are unredeemably evil while other criminals are released on insignificant bail.
Really? See what’s happened? Someone cuts us off on the freeway and we don’t see it as a mistake motivated by them being late, or unthinking. No, we shout, “You Idiot, you imbecile,” and secretly hope we see them wrapped around a light pole down the road or at least pulled over by the Highway Patrol.
Friends, this erosion has filtered down from the newsmakers to our own hearts. We’re losing the important sense of community, that we really are in this together, even though we know that love for neighbor is the foundation of any ordered, productive and satisfying society. All around us civility is gasping for air even as we everywhere hear the call for collaboration, cooperation and unity. Ha! It’s hard to have unity when, first thing in the morning we are sharpening our tongues.
So, in closing, go ahead and critique my writing, my opinion, even my moral philosophy and my theology. But for the love of reason and peace, don’t rush to brand me as evil and fill my mailbox with hateful, inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, help me see your side with reasoned, well-thought-out and well-written arguments. After all, haven’t we got enough evil already? What we need is a bit more knowledge applied to life as wisdom.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.