Abandoning the witch hunt

Our society has a destructive obsession and an abusive relationship with celebrity. We obsess over the lives, outfits, mistakes, and opinions of the rich and famous. On the one hand, we worship and idolize celebrities; on the other hand, we subject them to an unbearable level of scrutiny. In some areas, we demand perfection; in other areas, we hold them to no standard at all. 

Some seek such fame and have a fair understanding of the lifestyle they pursue. Even still, the reality of the lifestyle must be crushing in many ways. However, in our day of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and ever-updating news; in our day of innumerable sites competing for views through inflammatory headlines, viral posts, and shocking content, we find that many who do not seek such fame are thrown into the ring to battle an impossible opponent: society and the media’s insatiable appetite for mistakes and controversy. These often-unsuspecting people are propelled from nonentity into infamy where they are ripped apart, publicly dissected, and forever condemned by their countrymen, before they have even had time to process what has happened.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” –Sir Winston Churchill

Opinions and judgments are formed based on poorly-researched, incomplete, and biased news stories. Hatred is spewed, threats are made, and, too often, lives are ruined. 

It truly is a modern-day witch hunt. In an ironic twist to the “right to a speedy trial,” we place our “witch” on immediate cyber trial, condemning and convicting her/him before we have heard the evidence. With no defense attorney, no chance to testify, and being held up against a prosecuting public who is also acting as jury, the defendant stands no chance. Thus we bandy about the names and condemn the characters of people who are complete strangers to us, as if we could see into the depths of their souls, knew their intentions, and had been watching their every move. As if we were God.

These are real people in real life situations. They are not convenient tools for political platforms. They are not props for our soap box issues. They are not stamps of approval for an “I told you so” post. Their names may leave the “trending” column on Facebook, but the effects of their unsought time in the unforgiving limelight of the modern media will continue to affect and haunt their lives in ways our misguided, frenzied, and short-lived outrage refuses to acknowledge. And there is nothing our society likes more than to feel outraged.

There is another way. It does not have to be like this. 

I’m an avid reader of 19th-century British literature. There are many things I love (and many things I dislike extremely) about that time period. One of the wonderful social decrees of the time was that a gentlewoman’s name was always to be honored and respected. If you were caught bandying it about in public, you could expect to be called out for a duel to defend your honor, since your actions had called this into question. I do not at all wish to resurrect the dueling culture of that time period, however, I think that there is great merit in this careful attitude toward a person’s good name. Shakespeare said:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him, 
And makes me poor indeed

So much is lost and so little is gained by the way we treat people’s names. If we are to create greater unity and peace in the world, there must be an admission that we do not possess enough information to condemn the people we so often publicly condemn. We may look at an action and condemn it–but we should take great care when we condemn the person behind the action, especially as this condemnation has become such a public action in our day. One single mistake that went viral on the internet does not provide us with the information necessary to publicly proclaim what type of person someone is. 

One of our interesting and unfortunate tendencies as humans is to commit what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is the tendency to overestimate dispositional influences on others’ behavior and underestimate situational influences. When we consider our own actions, however, we do the opposite–our successes we attribute to our disposition or character, our mistakes we attribute to circumstance. In truth, it is a combination of both factors, for ourselves and for others. But since we have no way of judging just how much of someone else’s action is due to situation versus character, we would do well to withhold our condemnation of that person. 

What can you ever really know of other people’s souls–of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. -C.S. Lewis.

When we understand that we don’t have all the facts, we are empowered to react in a much more charitable and constructive way. At its most basic, this is the Golden Rule–treating others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. None of our lives would bear up under the level of scrutiny we subject some of our fellow citizens to. None of us would wish for a mistake of ours to be thrown in our face and broadcast to the world, especially by people who know neither us nor our circumstances. Jesus told the accusers of the woman taken in adultery to let whoever was without sin cast the first stone. This is something we struggle deeply with in our society. Quite opposite of the Savior’s instruction, we cast stone after stone after stone at strangers whose “sin” we only know through hearsay, leaving our victim bleeding and bruised. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ said:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. 

If each one of us were to be put on trial tomorrow and judged after the manner in which WE have judged our fellow men, would we be given a fair trial? 

We can do better than this as a society. We can believe in and seek the goodness of our fellow humans. Yes, our fellows will make mistakes. So, too, will each of us. Sometimes we will be disappointed in the actions of our fellows. So, too, will we be disappointed in our own actions at times. But love will always be a more powerful force for change than will public humiliation and condemnation. Allow people to learn and change, just as we ask for second chances in our own lives.

“Let people repent. Let people grow. Believe that people can change and improve. Is that faith? Yes! Is that hope? Yes! Is it charity? Yes! Above all, it is charity, the pure love of Christ. If something is buried in the past, leave it buried. Don’t keep going back with your little sand pail and beach shovel to dig it up, wave it around, and then throw it at someone, saying, “Hey! Do you remember this?” Splat!

Well, guess what? That is probably going to result in some ugly morsel being dug up out of your landfill with the reply, “Yeah, I remember it. Do you remember this?” Splat.

And soon enough everyone comes out of that exchange dirty and muddy and unhappy and hurt, when what God, our Father in Heaven, pleads for is cleanliness and kindness and happiness and healing. –Jeffrey R. Holland

We all say we seek peace, but we wage a war on each other with our words. We can do better! We must. A country divided as ours is, latching onto every passing controversy, antagonizing and making enemies out of those whose opinions differ from their own, seeking the worst in each other, simply cannot be an effective instrument of peace in the world. We must seek peace within our own ranks if we wish to spread peace elsewhere. As Moroni said in his letter to Pahoran “the inward vessel shall be cleansed first.” 

As we seek the best in each other, as we recognize that good and support it, as we admit that we do not have all the information necessary to judge our fellowmen,  and as we grant others second chances, we will naturally become a nation more united, with more power for peace. 

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