“Uncharitable.” “Crude.” “Hyperbolic.” “Jerk.” “Condescending.” “Sarcastic.” “I don’t like his tone…” “I don’t usually post his stuff…” “It’s another rant…” Those are all ways some Catholics have prefaced posts they shared from a certain public figure. They follow with “but…”: “…but what he says is true…” “…but he’s telling it like it is…” “…but it needs to be heard…”
These weren’t taken from posts sharing Donald Trump, though they could have been. These Catholics were sharing articles from a certain conservative Catholic commentator and blogger. I don’t want to name the author for one primary reason: He is not the subject of this article. The subject is the decisions we make when we decide to share the truth given to us. If a Catholic post can be fairly characterized as “condescending” or “uncharitable,” for example, it’s probably not worth sharing, even if it says true things.
1) Alienating the audience
Truth and method are inseparable. When I read an article or listen to an argument filled with insults, I don’t become interested in truly listening, much less able to listen. I am not alone in this. I can’t think of a time a person changed his mind because of a condescending, crude, or hyperbolic presentation of the truth, no matter how true the truths were or how badly truth needed to be heard.
There’s good reason for this: The truth communicated and the method of presentation are, at the level of their impact, inseparable. An alienating method creates an alienating message. Every piece of information we acquire, every argument we listen to, every word we read is sifted through our whole self: Our experiences, preconceptions, emotions, needs, and desires. One such desire is the desire to be respected and affirmed. Not to be coddled when in error, but to have our value affirmed even when we are corrected or challenged. Humans don’t listen to people who belittle them. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.
Please consider your own experience, but I venture that if someone actually does give insult-bathed logic the time of day, the goal for that day is most likely only to prepare a rebuttal, not to consider the truth of the argument presented.
Some of the authors I have in mind know this. That’s why we see statements like this one in a recent post that was more inflammatory than enlightening: “I will not convince them of that…but allow me to waste my breath anyway.” The author may have been writing tongue in cheek, but struck a chord of truth. Interestingly he created a self-fulfilling prophesy: By stating that his opponents cannot be convinced of truth, he implicitly questions their desire or ability to grasp the truth, and further discourages them from receiving the truths he proffers. He was, in fact, wasting his breath.
2) Overdoing it
Truth speaks for itself, but can be assisted or hindered. Hebrews calls the Word of God sharper than any double-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, and between joint and marrow. Truth cuts deep into a person and brings change, change that is often painful. If truth is what we say it is, then it does not need our elaboration to be convincing. It pierces us, and as its roots penetrate further depths, it begins to bloom within us. Our heart is set up for this to happen.
Even though truth can hold its own, particular methods and choices about how we deliver truth can assist or impede the listener in his or her receptivity, choices such as whether to be gentle or forceful, serious or humorous, etc. The heart designed for truth can be softened or hardened.
St. Benedict acknowledged the need to pay attention to the personality and dispositions of the one receiving a correction. He recommended that the abbots in his monasteries use gentleness of speech with some, entreaties with others, and even rebuking with others, according to the character and strength of the one being corrected. One method doesn’t fit all.
But there is a reason that although St. Benedict also made provisions for corporal punishment to correct the disobedient, that practice has fallen out of style. As our collective experience and knowledge in the Church grew, we learned of the inefficacy and danger of physical force in the name of the Gospel. Such a method, you might say, “overdid it” and created more grounds for objection than following.
The same is true today for how we disrespect, belittle, and condescend each other over the Internet and airwaves, all in the name of “telling it like it is” (viz. Christ). Truth may be assisted by a spoonful of sugar or even a booming voice, but when our method pushes the listener to humiliation or defensiveness, we’ve done little good for anyone. That’s not the kind of help the truth can use.
3) Forgetting gratuitousness
Truth isn’t a trophy. “We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us.” Pope Benedict XVI drew us to humility with these words. Truth is something that happens to us and takes hold of our being. In Christianity we recognize this as a gift, not the fruit of our efforts or a long, hard, and drawn out philosophical discourse. I can’t explain why truth exists in my life; I can only witness to the fact that it does.
Condescension shuts out this reality. It is premised on presumption of superiority, there’s no way around it. Thus condescension is scandalous. It is scandalous not because it betrays the pride of the one condescending (a sinful Christian is just a Christian, not a scandal), but because it purveys a lie about the nature of truth. It says truth is something to be proud of, not thankful for; that it is something achieved, not given.
We can never share truth without a reverence for its power over us, or without wonder at why such power is exercised. “There but for the grace of God go I.” Any portrayal of truth should inspire humility. And rather than a sense of superiority, a sense of fraternity, love, sympathy, and respect for the person with whom we disagree should prevail. I don’t know why I have received what others have not.
I apologize for the inadequacy of my language in expressing the mystery of truth, grace, etc., but suffice it to say this: Truth is a gift, not a license to be a jerk.
So what is the proper method? I hope to dig deeper into this question in future posts. Catholic Beer Club seeks to engage the culture and I will focus my foreseeable monthly posts on fleshing out what this means. I suspect that the answer will be less about strategy and more about witness. Perhaps other contributors will join me in this conversation, and probably disagree with me. That’s welcome. For now, at the very least, I can say this: The methods we choose have a real effect inasmuch as we’re dealing with real people. Out of concern for the real effect of our methods, respect for the dignity of those we engage, and out of reverence for the truth we convey, let’s be solicitous.