How quick we are to condemn

April 3, 2006 | 21 comments
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In Notes from all over a link was added to a news item claiming that the latest Dutch spelling reform requested that the name “Christ” be written with a lower-case “c”. That information was spread on various American news channels and blogs. Flurries of comments ensued. A few examples:

“We are sure in the ‘end times’. There will be scoffers of our religion. The name of God or Christ will be wiped from our minds… Shame on the Netherlands and any others. Jesus wounds must open and bleed when this utter hatred of religion is pronounced.”

“And we wonder how the world is being torn apart by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, viruses, and on and on… tell the Netherlands to watch out because our God is not going to tolerate them much longer… watch and see.”

“This is not surprising. Western Europe is going down hill fast. They aren’t having any children, they don’t go to church, they do believe gay marriage and drug use should be tolerated and encouraged, they believe in living off the welfare state, and they are being taken over by a growing extremist Muslim population … This is just another anti-Christian arrow coming from another decadent Sodom & Gomorrah country where prostitution and drug use is openly encouraged on the streets but God is banned.”

Trivial detail: the Dutch spelling reform did not request to change the spelling of Christ. Names of persons keep the capital. The new spelling only clarified that when writing about a statue of Christ, then the art lexicon refers to it, in shortened form, as “a christ”. Like “a buddha”. The small case is to clarify, out of respect for the person, that here we are talking about an object, of which there are thousands.

And so, again, the media play a major role in misinformation, or rather in providing too succinct and biased information, leaving the audience to draw simplistic conclusions and unleash Pandora.

The bellicose rhetoric in the comments I quoted is scary. We may still find the same rhetoric among some of our own today. But talking about “the Dutch” or “the Europeans” in such terms is just as manipulative and ludicrous as presenting the whole of Utah as a polygamous enclave where all girls are forced into marriage and women are treated as sex slaves.

Why those sweeping condemnations of other nations, peoples or communities?

Intellectual laziness. Adopting a quick monolithic mindset about foreigners, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, Mormons, non-Mormons … is so much easier than to study the issues, discover the multiple facets of reality, open our hearts to others, and learn to nuance. This is not to say there are no problems, or that we should be tolerant of evil. But gratuitous, negative generalizations are terribly wrong and alienating.

Moral isolationism. It is easy to shift all the evil to others and imagine we are the only ones left as the guardians of ethics and values. For some it is comforting to think that the rest of the world is going to hell and that God’s purifying process leaves them to be saved. While, in reality, our communities have just the same challenges with divorce, pornography, alcoholism, drugs, domestic violence, child abuse, gangs, racism, intolerance.

The Beast in us. We carry this genetic reaction of self-protection: others are the enemy. People who are different are sensed as threatening. And hence the need to vilify them even more in order to justify our abhorrence. That reaction also appears in weaker forms, when envy and self-affirmation lead us to be confrontational. Jim reminded us so well of the dangers of meanness, in particular in our own blogging and commenting.

Beware, this post is not about the state of Europe or the Netherlands or Utah, or about views on Muslims, Mormons or Latinos. It is about how to check our information, how to be careful in referring to sources, how to avoid demonizing, how to contribute to understanding and peace. It is about the question how we can better implement what President Hinckley mentioned during this past General Conference about avoiding racial divisiveness in any form, bitterness and animosity, about reaching out to everyone in friendship. The theme came back powerfully in Elder Robert S. Wood’s talk when he urged us to try to understand others and avoid “patterns of slander, of evil speaking, and bitter stereotyping”.

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21 Responses to How quick we are to condemn

  1. Mark IV on April 3, 2006 at 7:44 am

    If I remember Elder Wood’s remarks correctly, he described how a teacher required him to re-write a paper that was critical of the positions taken by a public figure. He was required to first write a paper exploring ways the person could be right, and attempt to describe those positions from a position of sympathy and understanding.

  2. DKL on April 3, 2006 at 7:53 am

    And we wonder how the world is being torn apart by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, viruses, and on and on… tell the Netherlands to watch out because our God is not going to tolerate them much longer… watch and see.

    Hmmm. Sounds reminiscent of what Wilford Woodruff said would happen to Boston by the 1880s.

    Assuming the worst–assuming that someone does think that it’s a good idea to begin the name of a major deity with a small letter–is God’s vanity so fragile that he’d redirect entire weather systems in retribution for spelling reform?

  3. Ronan on April 3, 2006 at 8:00 am

    Well said, Wilfried. Of course, as you say, Europeans demonise Americans in all kinds of silly ways too. I wish, oh I wish, that America and Europe would bury the hatchet.

  4. John David Payne on April 3, 2006 at 8:05 am

    Wilfried,

    I am the guy who linked the story in the Notes from All Over. My intention was only to share a story that I thought was interesting. My apologies if I have caused offense.

  5. Hellmut Lotz on April 3, 2006 at 8:05 am

    English could do with a spelling reform, couldn’t it?

    The Netherlands is a great place to live. They are doing a great job raising healthy and educated children. Like everywhere else they do have problems. On the whole, Dutch culture can teach us a thing or two on how to raise and nurture children.

  6. Wilfried on April 3, 2006 at 8:20 am

    No need to apologize, John. Your link was to the Catholic News Agency, normally a trustworthy source. They should have checked the information. But we’re grateful for the chance you provided to clarify the matter and expand to a broader topic!

  7. Bryce I on April 3, 2006 at 9:31 am

    Speaking of referring to sources, Wilfried, you might consider adding a link in the main post to the news release and comments in question, so that readers might draw their own conclusions as the the nature of the reaction.

    I would add a corollary/addendum to your comment about intellectual laziness. It may the the case that one’s particular prejudices and attitudes appear to be largely justified given one’s personal experience. I had a well-educated member of the Church tell me that he had always assumed that there was no innate difference in intelligence between the black Americans and white Americans, but after moving from Utah to North Carolina and hearing his wife’s experiences teaching high school here, they had come to the conclusion that blacks as a group must be less intelligent than the general population, because every single black student in his wife’s classes performed poorly in school.

    Now clearly, there are arguments to be made against such a position, but it can be difficult to step back and say, “As extensive as my personal experience may seem to be, it is still a relatively small sample.” Unfortunately, I think for most of us, even though we can hold an intellectual position that is at odds with our direct perceptions of the world, the evidence that we obtain by our own interactions with people tends to trump all others, even though in many instances we should distrust that evidence.

  8. Frank McIntyre on April 3, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Wilfried,

    The art thing makes sense. Do you have an English link that clarifies that “trivial detail”?

  9. John David Payne on April 3, 2006 at 10:05 am

    Thanks, Wilfried.

  10. Tatiana on April 3, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Bryce I, I would also add that we filter our direct experiences through the lens of our prejudices before we assign meaning to them. A story that illustrated that happened to me several years ago.

    A friend who was raised in the Northeastern U.S. and I (from the South) went to a movie together and both of us were annoyed by a couple sitting a few rows behind us who talked loudly throughout the movie. Afterwards at dinner, I happened to mention “that rude Yankee couple” to my friend, and she asked “You mean that rude Jewish couple?” I was like “No, what made you think they were Jewish?” It seems that the lenses of our prejudices were focused somewhat differently, so that we both ascribed the bad behavior to a group of people from whom we were (unconsciously) predisposed to expect it. It made us both realize we have these prejudices, and vow to fight more diligently against that sort of thinking. In fact, the couple were individuals who were most likely both hard of hearing and unable to tell how loudly they were talking.

  11. Wilfried on April 3, 2006 at 11:52 am

    “Do you have an English link that clarifies that “trivial detailâ€?? (8)

    No, not yet. In Belgium and the Netherlands the matter has not sparked much attention since it is clear for whoever reads the spelling rules. I only found one clarification on-line here (in Dutch), that confirms that Christ continues to be written with capital and that the lower “c” only applies to objects depicting Christ.

    “Wilfried, you might consider adding a link in the main post to the news release and comments in question, so that readers might draw their own conclusions as the the nature of the reaction.” (7)

    This is the reference already given in Notes from all over.

    How come the matter is suddenly given so much attention in American news and blogs? It seems the source is an article in The Brussels Journal, which is an outspoken right-wing publication. I am not able to assess how they select newsitems and inform their readers, but in this case I feel that the author, who is Dutch-speaking and should know better, misinformed the public.

  12. Wilfried on April 3, 2006 at 11:56 am

    I just noticed that comments in the Brussels Journal also responded in English:

    “Luc, your analysis about ‘christus’ is not correct. It’s only when you use ‘christus’ as a statue of Christ, that it’s written with a lowercase letter. In the name ‘Christus’, like any proper name, capitalization is retained. The same is true for e.g. ‘croesus’ (a wealthy man) and ‘Croesus’ (the ancient king in Asia Minor).”

  13. Jonathan Green on April 3, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    Wilfried, it’s interesting how language change and spelling reform serve as a lightning rod for anxieties about cultural shifts. And how things can get lost–or made to disappear–in translation. And how willingly we accept stories that confirm our beliefs, and how willing others are to feed us half-truths that confirm those beliefs. All in all, yours is a very interesting post.

  14. Bookslinger on April 3, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    Wilfried raises a good point. Everyone with expertise or detailed knowledge in a given area can point out errors in media reports concerning their area of knowledge. If you add them all up, the media gets almost everything wrong.

    It finally took a Mormon reporter to get a balanced article about the church in Newsweek.

    Has it occurred to anyone that other major and repetitive news items may be overblown and misrepresented due to both lack of detail and an agenda on the part of the media? Such as global warming or ozone depletion? I’ve read some good refutations of global warming, and how a core of alarmists have cooked the books. Examples include: failing to mention that the breakup of pack ice north of Canada occurs in 50 year cycles, and is _not_ a brand new phenomenon that must be attributable to global warming. That the rise in global temperatures in the 20th century was actually greater _before_ 1950 than after 1950 when man started pumping all the so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That a not insignificant portion of the global warming figures is attributable to places like Siberia warming up from -40 to -39, and is that a bad thing?. That the data collectors/observers have unjustifiably shifted observation points to urban areas away from rural areas (which are naturally cooler) out of proportion to the percentage of land area covered by the urban areas. (IE, the shifting of observation points to cities has increased by more than the land-area growth of cities.)

  15. Kimball Hunt on April 3, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    The news article truthfully points out that god needn’t be capitalized. Which is true — if misleading.

    Maybe it was the reporter’s editor who, thinking the article was about a pretty blase` of topic, overly tightened up his piece, the original of which might have included the details explaining that generic usages should be left uncapitalized.

    And even if were the reporter himself gave the description short shrift, we of course know how reporting is so driven by deadlines and often allows no time to let a piece sit for its creators to come back to it fresh to see if it’s misleading.

  16. Ben H on April 4, 2006 at 8:09 am

    Thanks for clarifying this, Wilfried. I happen to have had enough opportunities to compare journalism with reality to know it is routinely wide of the mark.

    In a world where truth is stranger than fiction, though, it can often be hard to tell the difference. If a priest can be charged with criminal hate speech in Canada for saying homosexual acts lead to hell, and wearing a head scarf is illegal for schoolgirls in France, and a disabled man can receive a government subsidy to pay for prostitutes in–where was that? it seems one would have to have special knowledge of the low countries to know this report was unreliable. It doesn’t seem so far out. And how is one to know about contemporary events but from the media, if one doesn’t live there oneself?

    I think it is appropriate to strongly condemn the media here. On such an obviously sensitive topic this sort of error is grave. It is really shameful what poor quality information the media will often pass along. The recent LA Times article on DNA and the Book of Mormon is a good example of stupidly credulous (or cynically sensationalist) reporting. And yes, people should know the media is not always reliable. And wow, our ignorance of each other is lamentable! I think you are asking a bit much of the media readers, though. Of course, your point is similar to one I made a couple days ago on this blog, so maybe I am being inconsistent.

  17. Bradley Ross on April 4, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    If Wilfried is calling for an end to all generalizations, then I disagree. All of us are called upon to make decisions before we have all the facts. If omniscience were the standard, it would be impossible to have an opinion.

    Caution in making a generalization, especially a negative one, is in order given the good reasons that Wilfried cited. But generalizations, “positive” and “negative,” are necessary for us to function. When we are warned to avoid being like “the world,” surely we recognize that as a useful generalization with obvious exceptions.

    The standard that we must avoid “gratuitous, negative generalizations” is too broad. All opinions can be gratuitous (i.e. unwarranted, unjustified) by some standard. Wilfried just called the commenters he quoted intellectually lazy and morally isolated. That is a negative generalization. He can’t possibly know enough about them to really make that claim with authority. But he is doing what all humans must do: making judgements, even negative ones, on limited information.

  18. Wilfried on April 5, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Interesting remark, Bradley, and it is justified if my wording leads you to read in it a negative generalization pertaining to people as such. I apologize if it does. But… I did not write that the “commenters are intellectually lazy and morally isolated”. I wrote that the causes of sweeping condemnations can be found in intellectual laziness and moral isolationism. That is a very different way to put it — an ontological distinction of great importance in our relations with others.

    Compare. Good communication requires e.g. parents and teachers to say to children or students, if necessary: “That is not a smart thing you did”. But do not say: “You are not smart”. It makes a huge difference. Jumping from the first statement to the second would be… a gratuitous, negative generalization.

    So I tried to communicate the best way possible to make a point.

  19. Kimball Hunt on April 5, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    Re capitalization of Christ: There’s certainly no offense to distinguish proper noun usages from extended ones. (For example jack mormon needn’t be capitalized since who’s refered to isn’t REALLY Mormon — the same with the “bible of the music industry” or the “young turks” of the movement, where what were originally proper nouns are given extended, more generic meanings.)

    Still I’d suggest most magazines and members of our culture today SHOULD capitalize Celebrity.

  20. Bradley Ross on April 6, 2006 at 12:03 am

    Wilfried, point taken with respect to commenters being intellectually lazy. I guess my main question is, “When is it okay to stereotype and/or generalize?” For the good of society and of our own souls we should be careful about making a negative generalization, but is it always wrong?

  21. Wilfried on April 6, 2006 at 8:00 am

    Again an interesting remark, Bradley. I guess there are cases and situations where a negative generalization is helpful as a protective measure. Would the generalized warning never to go and see an R-rated movie fall in such category? Probably. While there are beautiful and thought-provoking R-rated movies (and where the R has been added for a marginal and debatable reason), the negative generalization can hardly be called “wrong”. I guess we can multiply the examples. On the other hand, generalizations obviously entail risks of cheap judgments and refusal to study issues.

    I noticed I have not thanked quite a few other commenters who have added their insights and nuances to the thread. All comments have been read and appreciated. Merci!