A couple of years ago a woman about to board a flight tweeted out what she thought was an ironic “joke” and then obediently turned off her phone. When she disembarked some hours later, Justine Sacco discovered that she had become one of the most hated women on the planet, and had lost her job, to boot. She had been, effectively, un-personed—her whole life, and her humanity, defined by a bad joke.
Her story was recalled recently by a writer who admits he had taken no small measure of glee in his contributions to this woman’s diminishment until he himself experienced a fast take-down by the righteous mob that is social media. Publishing under a pseudonym, the now un-personed person writes: “I once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry. Then I upset the wrong person, and within a short window of time, I was considered too toxic for my employer’s taste.”
Unhireable in his profession, the fellow currently delivers food for a living, and he is making the best of it: “It’s honest work, and it’s led me to rediscover how to interact with people in the real world. I am a kinder and more respectful person now that I’m not regularly on social media attacking people for not being ‘kind’ and ‘respectful.’”
There isn’t a person alive who has not misspoken and said stupid or clumsy things. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t tongue-tripped over their own big feet, offering up something spectacularly off-key while thinking themselves clever. It’s one of those human things that should, in a rightly-ordered world, remind us of our commonality and our myriad imperfections. Recalling that tomorrow we might be the one to misspeak should incline us toward offering second chances, particularly if a gaffe has been straight-up owned and an apology made.
It’s really not hard for scandalized or offended people to say, “We all screw up once in a while.” In truth, it costs us nothing to offer even a grudging, “Well, alright, but please do better.”
Increasingly though, those words of mercy go un-uttered, especially in media. A misspeak, a bad joke, a thoughtless remark, or a moment of rank stupidity, whether uttered privately in a meeting or thrown into the detritus that is social media, is now an unforgivable action requiring the surrender of one’s livelihood. One’s name must become anathema among the scalp-collecting mobs and the capricious arbiters of acceptable social discourse who incite them.
Recently I wrote about the unsoundness of silencing hate, and some people were unhappy with it, insisting that all hateful speech must be silenced, and with requisite shaming. Lest their stupid utterances become contagious, designated haters must live apart from clean and decent society, cast out from among us like the lepers of old, “unclean, unclean.”
The problem is, at some point, every one of us will say something terrible, either because we’ve misjudged a “joke,” or because while trying to make a point we find the clumsiest, most inept way to do it (“That guy uses [insert terrible, hurtful word], but I never would,” comes to mind), or because we’re simply weary and flapping our gums when we are too brain-fogged to do it sensibly and responsibly.
When that happens, we are grateful for the people around us who are able to think, “Egad, there but for the grace of God go I…” and offer a word of fraternal correction (or even better, ask, “Are you okay?”) and then let the matter drop. They are models of a mercy become all too rare in this angry, perpetually-offended age.
Recently, a good friend of mine found herself being very poorly described within a publication that probably should have known better, but possibly did not. My friend, a writer who is exacting in her own language and speech and quite reasonably expects accuracy from others in media, wrote a polite correction to the site, but was still fuming interiorly until she considered:
- The error was probably made not from malice but mere ignorance.
- In making her correction she had been given an opportunity to share knowledge that many may not have.
- The offensive-giving words became, in effect, a chance to shine a charitable light on things, rather than spew more darkness into the world.
- It cost her nothing at all to make a merciful move over the angry one, and she felt the better for it.
I know, it all sounds a simplistic rule: Take a moment; consider the motive; choose the more merciful response.
The thing is, though, sometimes the “simple” ideas and actions prove the most difficult to conform to, or to habituate. Developing a habit of mercy is challenging, because it requires the suppression of our bossy, yapping egos which demand capitulation to what we see as righteousness. We want the pound of flesh; we feel powerful as we take it with a Hamletian scream, “Oh, vengeance!”
But “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Deut 32:35), and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” quoted the Christ, who also said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7).
The absence of a merciful instinct in society should trouble us greatly. It suggests a diminishment of Christian influence that is being replaced by something else. If Christ can come to us disguised as the poor, or the marginalized, or the meek and foolish, there is no reason why anti-Christ cannot show up disguised as merciless social fury.
Mercy begets mercy and, as the gentleman now delivering sushi and pizza warns, eventually we will all have a turn in needing a little.
Practice makes perfect.