On January 18, 2019, a video of Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann went viral. He was at the Lincoln Memorial standing face to face with a Native American man during the March to Life in Washington, D.C. On the basis of that picture, a frenzy of condemnations from reporters, commentators and politicians were heaped upon this student, accusing him of prejudice and hatred. Misinformation and lies spread like wild fire. Finally, when the facts were uncovered, the high school student was exonerated of any wrong-doing, even though much wrong had been done to him and his family. It was a rush to judgment.
On January 29, 2019, American actor and singer Jussie Smollett reported that two masked men attacked him at 2 AM near his apartment in Chicago. He claimed that the attack was racist and homophobic. After Smollett’s initial report, friends and fans, celebrities and politicians expressed outrage at this hate crime. Twitter and Instagram fueled the frenzy of self-righteous indignation. However, in just three weeks, it was discovered that the whole event had been orchestrated by Smollett. Yet, before the facts were fully known, there was the rush to judgment and much chatter.
Modern society impatient, Reason and Discernment lags
Gifted with reason, we are wired to make judgments. Discerning the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the right from the wrong, and virtue from vice: this is an essential part of our being human. However, every judgment must be founded on truth, not rumor; on fact, not fiction; on substance, not appearance. And every judgment must always be tempered with compassion. Albeit from opposite directions, the Sandmann and Smollett incidents show how quick we are to believe or disbelieve, to accuse or defend and how easily we pick a side and draw a line in the sand. And, all the while, truth grows ever more fragile.
Today’s rush to judgment gathers speed along the newly constructed digital highway. We get information instantaneously and, because we want solutions just as fast, we are quick to judge. As a result of this incessant communication about other people’s lives, we live on the edge between truth and falsehood. What years ago was whispered between a few people now goes viral and can never be retrieved. As a result, in this environment, deliberately passing on stories that destroy other people’s good names is nothing less than cyber bullying.
There is no area of modern society that is exempt from someone passing on false information, half-truths or blatant, deliberate lies. In a society of fast-paced information sharing, gossip has become so commonplace that people justify it as a way to right wrongs, correct others and unseat those whom they deem unfit for their chosen work. However, unlike the surgeon’s scalpel that removes the cancer, gossip is the arrow that destroys the other.
A lie has legs, regardless of what we think at the moment
As a statement sometimes attributed to Mark Twain says, “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots.” In a similar vein, Jonathan Swift once wrote, “if a lie be believ’d only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that, when men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late…the tale has had its effect” (Jonathan Swift, The Examiner, Number 15, November, 1710). For this reason, people of good faith should be slow to judge others. And never should they gossip. People who constantly judge or criticize others truly lack compassion.
Sadly, making negative judgments on others on the basis of appearances and then spreading those judgments to others is found among those who consider themselves Church-going people. It is especially found among those who set themselves as crusaders for a just cause and, then by their lack of charity, become unjust themselves. The fondness to judge and criticize others may well be a way of not facing one’s own sins. “It is often easier or more convenient to see and condemn the faults and sins of others than it is to see our own” (Pope Francis, Angelus, March 3, 2019).
In speech after speech, Pope Francis has been courageously warning us of the evil of gossip. “Gossip is a weapon and it threatens the human community every day; it sows envy, jealousy and power struggles… We might welcome someone and speak well of him the first day but little by little that worm eats away at our minds until our gossip banishes him from good opinion. That person in a community who gossips against his or her neighbor is, in a sense, killing him.” (Pope Francis, Homily, Domus Sanctae Marthae, September 2, 2013).
Few things can match the harmful effects of gossip, whether it be slander or detraction. Defamation inflicts grave harm on the individual and destroys the community. It is against charity and, since God is love, it is against God himself. Charles Spurgeon, one of the most popular Baptist preachers of the 19th century, summed up the evil of talking about other people by saying, “the tale-bearer carries the devil in his tongue, and the tale-hearer carries the devil in his ear.” Gossip makes the devil laugh!
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.