Too much? Too far? Criticism doesn't require personal attacks

Saturday, May 16, 2009

It's clear from reading the Gospels that Jesus didn't pull his rhetorical punches. Money changers, Pharisees, even a fig tree got a piece of the master's mind. Jesus, who seemed to read every audience perfectly, seemed never to be cowed when he had an audience. On one memorable occasion in his hometown of Nazareth, a crowd tried to throw him off a cliff because his words challenged their comfortable attitudes. (Luke 4:16-30) Too much? Too far? It's hard to make that case. He didn't attack anybody personally; there was nothing ad hominem in his words.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was accused of saying too much and going too far by a group of white clergy. Dr. King was asked to tone it down, to dial his rhetoric back. In his response, detailed in his now-famous "Letter From the Birmingham Jail," King wrote to his critics respectfully but pointedly.

"I feel you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth ... [However], in deep disappointment I [weep] over the laxity of the church. There was a time when the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century."

Too much? Too far? It's hard to make that case. Ideas were under scrutiny in that long 1963 missive.

The comedian Wanda Sykes, in her appearance at a Washington, D.C., dinner last week, held up to scorn area native Rush Limbaugh. (In the interest of full disclosure, Rush is a member of the church I serve as pastor. Therefore, I cannot claim to be a disinterested observer, particularly with other Limbaugh family members active in the congregation.) What a public figure actually says is fair game -- in both comedy and in serious debate (e.g., Mr. Limbaugh's comments about wanting the president to "fail"). Rush did say that and has been explaining his words ever since. It's not ad hominem to challenge Rush to defend or expand upon his comments. However, when rhetorical criticism morphs into personal attack, then we return to the original questions: Too much? Too far?

Ms. Sykes said she hoped Rush's kidneys fail. She suggested that he ought to be waterboarded. She opined that he was the "20th hijacker" on Sept. 11 but that he overslept due to OxyContin.

To be fair, much of Ms. Sykes' routine was amusing -- a few moments were laugh-out-loud funny to me. But about 12 minutes into her 15-minute act, she stepped over the line.

The laughter in the room dimmed noticeably when the act went personal. The president of the White House Correspondents Association actually looked ill for a moment.

Going personal seems always to bring a sick feeling to the pit of the stomach. We ought to leave name-calling on the grammar school playground. Some, unfortunately, never grow past such invective. In our everyday lives, it seems we all suffer when fair criticism of ideas and thoughts is abandoned for the easy, cheap and even sleazy road of character assassination and intimations of violence. We ought not to go there.

We've got to know there is a line between principled criticism of rhetoric and ad hominem attack. Jesus didn't step over that line and neither did Dr. King. But I fear it happened a week ago Saturday in Washington. Too much and too far, Ms. Sykes.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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