Months ago when preparing to teach a high school course for a homeschool co-op this academic year, I knew that our January assignment would be St. Francis de Sales’ great work, Introduction to the Devout Life.
Little did I realize the timeliness of the reading until Jan. 19, when I began preparing the section on rash judgment and slander.
An hour or two later, when hopping on the internet, I was bombarded with the same screenshot from a YouTube video on every site I visited. The video featured a group of high school boys and a Native American man shortly after the March for Life and has captured the nation’s attention during the last several weeks.
What was striking at the moment – and escalated in veracity in the following days – was how prescient St. Francis de Sales’ writing was to the situation that has labeled a person, a school, a city and a diocese.
The 17th-century saint described various reasons that people engage in rash judgment. For some, there is a naturally negative disposition that leads to harshness in viewing the actions of others. Some judge out of a pride that seeks a feeling of superiority. There can be a sort of self-satisfaction in believing that another’s actions are far baser than one’s own.
St. Francis de Sales continues that some people play the philosopher by judging others’ actions to prove their own intelligence. Still others find passion or ambition or fear at the root of their quickness to judge others. Rash judgment, he says, “causes all things to appear evil to the eyes of those infected with it.”
By contrast, Introduction to the Devout Life proposes charity as the remedy of rash judgment. In particular, presuming good intentions regarding others’ actions can cultivate one’s love of neighbor. St. Francis de Sales summarizes, “If an action has many different aspects, we must always think of which is the best.”
We don’t have to spend too long imagining what presuming good intentions looks like. When St. Joseph’s betrothed was pregnant, how could he have possibly not berated Mary for her presumed infidelity? And yet, he accepted the word of the angel and took Mary into his home, trusting that there really was an answer that defied the obvious.
When someone tails me on the highway, it’s easiest to label him a jerk who is obnoxiously set on mowing everyone out of the way. But what if his wife is in labor or his father is dying or he’s late for work because of helping his neighbor? Presuming good intentions is a challenge thrown to us daily, both by strangers and those we know well.
From his passages on rash judgment, St. Francis de Sales next tackles slander. In this section, he insists that when someone commits a particular sin, he is not to be labeled by it. The person who tells a lie is not a liar. The person who commits adultery is not an adulterer. “A single act is not enough to justify the name of vice,” wrote St. Francis de Sales. “We must never draw conclusions from yesterday to today, nor from today to yesterday, and still less to tomorrow.” In other words, one particular action is not enough to convict a person as inherently evil, nor does it describe the whole of the person.
He has harsh words regarding slander: “Beware of falsely imputing crimes and sins to your neighbor, revealing his secret sins, exaggerating those that are manifest, putting an evil interpretation on his good works, denying the good that you know belongs to someone, maliciously concealing it or lessening it by words.”
These reflections on rash judgment and slander were written 400 years ago. Clearly our temptations to these sins have not abated. When inserted into the realm of social media, rash judgment and slander can literally go “viral.”
When limited to 140 characters and impelled by an invisible but very real force to come down on a “side” (of which there are only two apparent options), we’ve seen rash judgment and slander in their loudest, ugliest, most pernicious.
We might live in a culture that eschews the “tyranny of labels” and exalts tolerance as the greatest good, and yet we are quick to jump to conclusions based on a soundbite worth of information and then to transmit them through a social media version of the children’s game of telephone.
The snowball effect of opinions and judgments blasted throughout the country forget something key: the person, or people, at the center of it all. Who are they? How can we presume to judge the intentions or the totality of another person by a two-dimensional recorded moment in time? How can we so easily contribute to the public perception of someone we’ve never met?
These are questions that don’t just occur on a “viral” level. They impact us at home, work, school and in the grocery store. We are surrounded by opportunities daily to forget or to affirm the person at the center of our possible judgments.
St. Francis de Sales offers advice to us all in our future invitations to detraction: “When you hear anyone spoken ill of, make the accusation doubtful if you can do so justly. If you cannot, excuse the intention of the accused party. If that cannot be done, express sympathy for him, change the subject of conversation, remembering yourself and causing the rest to recall that those who do not fall into sin owe it all to God’s grace. Recall the slanderer to himself in a mild way and tell of some good deed of the offended party if you know of any.”
Whether we’re afforded this opportunity on Twitter or at the water cooler, these are wise words to remember. Real people’s lives and reputations are at stake, and their inherent dignity demands that we treat them accordingly.
Emily Macke is the author of Called to be More, a high school Theology of the Body curriculum published by Ruah Woods Press. She is an adjunct instructor at Mount St. Mary’s of the West/the Athenaeum in Cincinnati and has a wide range of experience speaking, teaching and writing about the faith. She lives in southeastern Indiana with her husband and children.