Sometimes the better part of wisdom, and charity, is to refuse to assume you know anything, until you actually do.
Here’s a good New Year’s resolution, if you’re still looking for one: Stop talking.
We need to stop talking, or talk a lot less, because we — most of us who aren’t yet saints — don’t know as much as we think we do. We tend to default to our favorite explanations and categories, and those often criticize and dismiss.
Remember middle school? Every 13-year-old’s explanation for every other 13-year-old was “He’s insecure.” We said it with confidence. It was partly true. Most of us were hyper-sensitive baskets of insecurities. But it wasn’t adequately true. It really didn’t explain very complex creatures.
Adult middle schoolers
Many adults haven’t gotten much beyond middle school, at least in our public personas. Just spend 10 minutes flipping through your Facebook feed. You’ll find the same kinds of judgments. The nicest, kindest people will blandly describe someone else in the most reductive, dismissive ways. A man will classify people by their positions on the issues that matter to him. He divides them into good guys and bad guys and assigns bad motives and character faults to the bad guys.
A good friend whose kindness and care in person I’ve seen, even to people who attack him, recently wrote that “A college professor who puts up a ‘Safe Space’ sign on his office door wants to be seen as wise and good, without doing anything to merit it, and without having to defend the position that underlies the message: ‘I am wise, and I accept all gender identities,’ or ‘I’m good and sensitive, and hate what the best people hate.’”
Some, I’m sure, do that. And some, whom I happen to know, don’t. Some know how damaged their students can be and know that damaged people need assurance that you will be careful with them. Maybe a “safe space” sign is a bit of a cliché. The professor can be virtue-signalling. Sometimes the sign’s an indirect method of ideological intimidation. But not always. How else can you tells students who don’t know you that you try to be sensitive to their need for kindness and understanding?
In other words, my friend’s sweeping, contemptuous dismissal of every professor who puts up a “safe space” sign on his door is untrue. It slanders some of those professors — the kind of professors my friend would have wanted when he was a college student. He does not know enough to say what he did. He should know that, because he’s a very smart man and a serious Catholic. He should stop talking about what he doesn’t know, rather than rousing the rabble by making people he doesn’t completely understand look like knaves.
The blogger Mary Pezzulo offered another example. She describes how some people misjudge the poor by assuming a fact they see means one thing when it may mean something radically different. I’ve written about the same problem, here.
The origin of Steel Magnificat
That’s a maybe contentious example of speaking when we do not know enough to speak. Here’s a neutral one. Pezzulo once explained the origin of her weblog’s title, Steel Magnificat. You, like me and everyone else, almost certainly assume she chose it as a play on the movie Steel Magnolias. You’d especially assume that if, like me, you knew she lived in an Ohio Valley steel town. And you would be wrong.
I would have bet a lot of money on it, were I a betting man. It seemed sooooo obvious where she got the name. But no. She explains: “I had no idea that my own blog had a title that was a play on Steel Magnolias until after people started mistakenly calling me ‘Steel Magnolia’ every other day and other people started congratulating me on the pun. I’ve never seen Steel Magnolias. I’ve barely heard of it. I just wanted to give my blog a name that had both Catholicism and the Steel Valley in it, and ‘Valley Magnificat’ sounded like a soap opera.”
It’s a useful lesson in not speaking with certainty even about what seems to be the obvious. Some portion of the time you will be speaking untruths, and you’re not exactly innocent of it. You should know you don’t know and not speak as if you did know.
We may not always attack, though a lot of nice people do when they write on Facebook. We may speak calmly. But uncharitable judgments delivered calmly may be worse than those delivered harshly. We just don’t know very much about other people. As St. Augustine said, we don’t really know ourselves. Other people are mysteries who ought to be treated with charity, and one great act of charity is not to judge them as if we truly know them.
The great French philosopher Pascal famously said, “The problems of the world would be solved if men would learn to stay quietly in their rooms.” He might have said that the world’s problems might be solved, and mankind’s supply of charity greatly increased, if we would learn not to talk so much.