By David Hegg
As I watched, listened, and mourned the erosion of civility in society among those who make and report the news, the path we have taken has finally become clear.
Previously, criticism was limited to what a person did, what they said, or how they appeared. When a local or national figure acted inappropriately, or made statements that made no sense, or made promises they couldn’t keep, when a movie star walked the red carpet in an absurd outfit, her actions were criticized as reckless, stupid, reckless, manipulative, shocking, or one of many other adjectives that qualified 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 mean 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 living in the public eye where all they do, say or wear is recorded, reported and criticized. But at some point, as a nation, we criticized their mistakes and left it at that.
Of course, over time, when someone kept making mistakes, making impossible promises, making ridiculous claims, and consistently acting in deceptive, shocking, and even immoral ways, criticism passed actions to the character.
We see a lot of it today, and it’s natural. We all make mistakes from time to time. We all deceive ourselves, fake the truth and act inappropriately. And, we should be called for those transgressions simply because we don’t want to act that way, and those who love us don’t want that of us either.
But, when mistakes become the norm, when deceitful, shocking or manipulative behaviors become the outline of life, it is reasonable to suggest that these actions no longer fit into the column of human error. They speak of a deeper problem. They testify to an imperfect character where self-protection and self-promotion have taken precedence over common decency.
We see this too often today. We’ve largely moved from judging actions to castigating characters. What was once flagged as an error is now being declared a character flaw, and the language is getting dirtier and dirtier. For example, this person didn’t just tell the truth, he is a liar. And this politician has not only taken unfair advantage of her position, she is an arrogant elitist. And they don’t really care about people, they’re just power-hungry manipulative tyrants who demand votes.
What I’m trying to show is the evolution of our divisive rhetoric and the corresponding erosion of civil criticism. We used to criticize actions. But now we go straight to the character. And that’s not the end of the road.
In recent years, we have moved from critiquing actions to denouncing character, and now finally, challenging a person’s nature. I can put it simply: those we dislike are not simply stupid or even flawed in character. They are bad. They are inherently evil human beings and should never have a place in our world.
If you’ve played with open eyes and an open mind, you’ve seen national figures say their opponents should be cut down, crushed, and left for dead. We have heard that some hope their adversaries die of COVID-19 or spend the rest of their lives behind bars because they are irretrievably evil while other criminals are released on meaningless bail.
Really? Do you see what happened? Someone cuts us off on the freeway and we don’t see it as a mistake motivated by their lateness or thoughtlessness. No, we shout, “You idiot, you idiot,” and secretly hope to see them wrapped around a lamp post in the road or at least stopped by the Highway Patrol.
My friends, this erosion has spread from journalists to our own hearts. We lose the important sense of community, that we are truly in the same boat, even though we know that love of neighbor is the foundation of any orderly, productive, satisfying society. All around us, civility is on the wane 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 sharpen our tongues.
So, in closing, go ahead and critique my writing, my opinion, even my moral philosophy and my theology. But for the sake of sanity and peace, don’t rush to call me evil and fill my mailbox with hateful, inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, help me see your side with well-reasoned, well-thought-out, and well-written arguments. After all, haven’t we had enough trouble already? What we need is a little more knowledge applied to life as wisdom.
Local resident David Hegg is the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears on Sundays.