Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Watch your mouth: On truth, friendship, and character

For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth first.


A buddy of mine on Facebook-- a fellow Episcopalian who belongs to another parish-- disagrees with me on many things, often political in nature and he loves to engage me on my social media feeds.

He adores President Trump. I don't.
He thinks Brexit is a great idea. I don't.
I think he thinks a wall along the southern US border would solve a lot of problems. I think it's a fool errand.He thinks climate change is either a hoax or just nature doing it's thing. I'm worried and believe that humans have had a profound impact on the environment.

But we engage each other as people, and so when we agree, we do, and when don't, we say so!

What we don't do is call each other names. One element of our periodic debate is that he is always respectful towards me and this encourages me to continue to be respectful to him. He'll never change my mind (or at least I don't think he will) about certain issues and I will never change his. He has corrected me when I've been wrong, and I accept that. But we talk (at least electronically) and we know that, even in our separate churches, we share the same communion table and follow the same Lord. 

One thing I avoid doing on the interwebs is reading the comments. For every little clever gem that gets posted there is a dump-truck full of dross. Call me a hypocrite... I will periodically comment, and I suppose that my gem is someone else's dross. But this does lower my blood pressure, it also means that this just adds to my digital isolation.

So he does me a service, for which I am grudgingly grateful. You see, I am like a lot of users of the internet. I have my favorite sites and either by answering certain questions or liking certain sites and posts, the almighty algorithm has figured out what I like and feeds me more of it. If it weren't for my buddy, I might think that the whole universe agrees with my obviously enlightened and well-reasoned positions on nearly everything.

Call it an echo-chamber. Or a silo. Or whatever, I live there. 

My pal helps me see the world a bit more broadly. And sometimes that reveals to me some things that are pretty darned ugly. 

Yesterday my twitter and FB exploded with posts claiming that Greta Thunberg, who spoke at the UN this week, and the thousands of young people who went on climate strike last week have somehow been brainwashed by, I don't know, somebody. And their objections come down to something like "Isn't it terrible to use a child in this way!" 

This appeared in the New York Times today:

Fox News apologized after a pundit, Michael Knowles, called her “a mentally ill Swedish child” on one of its programs on Monday. (Ms. Thunberg, who is 16, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and has called it “superpower.”) The network called the comment disgraceful, and a spokeswoman said Fox had no plans to invite Mr. Knowles back.
Mr. Knowles, who writes for the conservative news site The Daily Wire, defended his remarks on Twitter, where he accused Ms. Thunberg’s supporters of exploiting her. The notion that she was being used as a puppet was repeated by others, including the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza.

The day before Ms. Thunberg’s United Nations speech, Mr. D’Souza likened her image to ones used in Nazi propaganda, posting a photo on Twitter of Ms. Thunberg, wearing her signature long braids, next to an illustration of a young woman with a similar hairstyle standing in front of a swastika flag.  
Other outspoken figures on the right sounded similar notes. Sebastian Gorka, who worked in the White House briefly under President Trump, wrote on Twitter that Ms. Thunberg’s remarks were “disturbingly redolent of a victim of a Maoist ‘re-education’ camp.”
Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, called Ms. Thunberg’s United Nations speech “chilling” on her Monday night show, and ran a segment about how climate change “hysteria” is changing American youth.
The segment included a clip from “Children of the Corn,” the 1984 movie based on a Stephen King novel in which children in a farm town murder adults. 
Now nothing gets me riled up quite like seeing otherwise adult people piling on a kid. Even a kid as articulate and media-savvy as Greta Thunberg. But just as I was getting the most riled up, I have had to stop myself. If it is wrong for people to treat Thunberg this way, then why is it okay for me or the people I happen to agree with to do it?

Ethics are pesky that way. 

Case in point: yesterdays address to the United Nations by President Donald Trump. He basically said that the way of the future is nationalism unleashed. Every nation for itself. Never mind that both fascism and communism were defeated by the concerted, combined efforts of the nations of the world (at the cost of a great many lives along the way). Never mind that everything from international travel to mailing a postcard overseas to being able to telephone or e-mail a person across the globe or share information in the internet are all possible with international cooperation. And you would think that being such a fan of capitalism, the idea that international markets--and the possibility of making and selling lots of things--are only enhanced by these international relationships. 

But no! According to his address at the UN yesterday, It is every nation for itself. Borders are beautiful. Cooperation is for losers. 

Now it would be easy for me to fall into the same trap... I think that the idea of decreasing international cooperation and feuding with other nations over more and more things we used to work out together in places like the UN and the dozens of international conventions that govern our global common life is is a very bad idea. These conventions and organizations have done much to preserve peace and extend prosperity over the past 75 years. They are not perfect but they sure beat the heck out of the alternatives! 

It's when we fall into the trap of resorting to name-calling and character assassination that trouble me. It is easy to do, and so difficult to stop. 

When we are start being strident towards our neighbor, filling our language with bluster, implied threat, and imputed motives that the seeds for disharmony and misunderstanding grows. We might feel the short term rush of having silenced the other guy or putting our opposition in its place, but we have created the seeds for future conflict that will eventually consume us all. 

I firmly believe that one of the ways we overcome the games, manipulation, and the drama is to keep cool. So just as I think people shouldn't beat up on Greta Thunberg, I think it is unhelpful to only pile on insults and characterization on the President or anyone else we disagree with.

Everyday ethics, not to mention being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus, means that we tell the truth, and we that we respect the people we are telling it to. We must name evil for what it is. We must not think that doing evil to fight evil will somehow result in a good. We must do the things that evil hates.

Don't get me wrong. Satire and humor are essential. The best satire gets us to think about issues differently. And one of the first signs that a person is too wrapped up in themselves or that their view of the world is too constrained is when they lose the ability to laugh at themselves. So keep it up Trevor and Stephen! 

I have a feeling that as we move into this new phase, with talk of impeachment in the air, we won't need to exaggerate or pontificate. We need to stay cool and focused. The true character of a lot of people will come to fore all on their own. And while bringing out the worst in people might create a short term gain, in the end the people who build themselves up by tearing others down will ultimately be crushed under the weight of their own debris.

And the same thing is true for responding to climate change and caring for our environment. Do what we must to get the conversation going: protest, petition, organize, teach the science, plan realistic responses, and all the rest. Yup, even satirize. We won't need to exaggerate or beat up on those who either disagree with us or, especially, on those who don't understand the problem. 

At the same time, we will need to deal with the fact that there will be those who won't mind or care if their behavior is unethical or sensational in order to make their points or to stop this movement. Don't let them deter you. 

As we move into a new phase, with both impeachment and global warming in the air, and with an election just around the corner, we will have to deal with a lot of hype, a lot of emotion, and a lot of spin. Opportunities for hate and division abound. 

Scripture is filled with good advice about watching one's mouth. These days it's not just the tongue that can get us in trouble but our keyboards and our memes. First Peter 3:10 comes to mind which reads “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” 

I am reminded over and over again that the line between being a prophetic witness and a total jerk is pretty fine. So it is important to speak truth and also to mind my mouth. 

If we are going to get anywhere on effecting real change when it comes to climate, poverty, racism, and social division, it will be essential for us to balance our clarity with our charity. Speak the truth. Hold fast. Lead with love.

The thing that I am learning from my pal is how to listen and how to be more articulate, and how not to resort to cheap shots, distracting accusations, or easy characterizations. If a cause is worth the struggle, it is worth doing honorably.

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