Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020: A Year of Ignorance and Rash Judgment

(The image in this piece is of a statue of Lincoln being removed. The intent of the image is Lincoln raising a slave up from slavery. But it has been misinterpreted as a slave kneeling down in front of Lincoln. And that’s a good symbol for one of the major problems of 2020.)

Setting aside the obvious tragedy of COVID-19 as a separate category (so nobody will think I am equating any of the other things I write about in this piece with this), I think one of the biggest tragedies of 2020 is the level of ignorance and accompanying rash judgment. By this, I mean that people showed themselves to be ignorant about facts, intention, and context when they encountered things they disliked. They did not know the facts or context of the matter and, as a result, assumed the worst possible intention for their actions.

As always, I want to make clear that I do not point my fingers at one faction in this accusation. Nor am I saying it came out of nowhere. This was decades in the making. Some of it involved real injustices that were ignored. Other parts involved assuming that whatever one disliked was done with the worst possible motives and those who were accused of that assumed motive needed to be exiled. No attempt was made to understand how people might think differently in good faith, or how people in past eras might have failed to understand what we now know to be morally wrong.

I think the misrepresentation of the pontificate of Pope Francis was a harbinger of 2020. He recognized that even when people do wrong, that does not always mean they maliciously intend to do what they know is evil. As a result, he called for a proper assessment of the person’s knowledge and intention before condemning them. Tragically, people missed the point. They assumed (whether with approval or disapproval) that what he did was “changing” Church teaching, rashly judging his motives when all he was doing was making clear this teaching of the Church. Did he make errors in judgment based on this? On occasion (the Barros case comes to mind). Did he make deliberate and malicious errors? I reject that claim.

But the treatment of Pope Francis from 2013 to the present served as a warning of what was wrong with our way of thinking. We assumed that we could not be in error, but those who took a different view could, and must be intending evil in holding that different view.

This is not to argue a moral relativism. There are objective moral demands, and some acts are intrinsically evil… things that cannot ever be supported or made good by intention or circumstances. And, yes, when it comes to intrinsic evil, we cannot “explain away” by saying that a past evil had a good intention. Once we come to understand that a thing is evil, we do have an obligation to correct our understanding. But one who is ignorant that a thing is evil might not have any malicious intention at all. Wrong is still done through that ignorance, but the guilt of the evil may be reduced.

Moreover, sometimes an accusation of malice is simply false when the person making it assumes that a moral evil is acceptable and whoever opposes it must be “intolerant.” For example, Christians are constantly accused of bigotry in the West because they insist on saying some actions are morally wrong. So, critics of Christianity in 2020 tend to do what they wrongly accuse Christians of doing—attempt to legally coerce Christians to abandon their moral beliefs—because they think the Christian view is morally wrong. 

Some things must be opposed. Abortion, racism, and other injustices can never be given a pass because “other issues are more important.” But we can never just assume the worst possible intention on the part of those who commit them.

This is what 2020, with its cancel culture and other attempts to silence the opposition, has done. Regardless of what you, the reader, thinks of Biden or Trump (or any other factional divide), we have an obligation to assess what is true about a belief or the person who holds it, and making sure our judgment does not act out of ignorance or rashly assume the worst possible motive when we disagree with someone. 

I pray 2021 will be better.


(†) I do categorically reject the accusations that he made errors in teaching.

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