Monthly Archives: March 2012

Can You Name This Virtue?

When my children were small, I read them stories from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Its folk tales and legends were organized under chapters called Self-Discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty and Faith.

For an address I gave at my high school graduation, I focused on the virtues listed in Paul’s famous passage in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This post is about a virtue that is missing from both of those lists. I did not give it due appreciation until recently. I’m convinced that most people neglect it, too. See if a couple of hints can help you guess it.

Hint #1: It is the opposite of one of the virtues that appears on William Bennett’s list — and in some translations of Paul’s list.

Hint #2: Talk show hosts who spout ignorance don’t have it, and neither do their dittoheads. Politicians who believe and repeat the ridiculous lack the virtue, as do the people who give them credence.

Those were big hints but I bet you’re having trouble concisely naming the virtue.

That is not surprising. Even though it is arguably as important a virtue as any on the lists I cited, even though the future harmony of our society depends on it, I cannot find a word for it! I spent about 20 minutes on and, to no avail.

What is this elusive virtue? It is to diligently gather and impartially consider good information, evidence and arguments — from all quarters — before forming an opinion.

If there is a single word that captures this virtue, I don’t know what it is. Do you? If not, what does that say about our culture!?

If something is important to a culture, people in that culture have (single) words for it. For example, if I were to ask you, “What word would you use to describe someone who always tells the truth?” you would immediately reply, “Honest.”

Another example is the virtue I had in mind in hint #1. If I were to ask, “What does a person have who believes God will always take care of him?” you would say he has faith. The concept has gotten plenty of use, so we have a word to express it succinctly.

Maybe my virtue is unnamed because it is relatively new. Only since the rise of the scientific method have we learned that it is the most reliable way to evaluate the truthfulness of a proposition.

Yet this virtue has a bad reputation. One of the words I thought about was skeptical but many of the synonyms for that word demonstrate its negative connotations: cynical, hesitating, mistrustful, scoffing. I thought about critical, as in critical thinking, but its synonyms are even worse, including carping, cutting, fussy and hairsplitting.

And that’s the way many people regard thorough research and critical thinking. If we insist on those steps before forming an opinion, people become exasperated. They wish their half-informed, half-reasoned arguments would convince us. We are more likely to please them with the other virtues. Nobody complains if we are loving, courageous or faithful.

It’s too bad that this virtue is so under-appreciated. With reference to William Bennett’s list, it promotes compassion, friendship, and honesty. It requires self-discipline, responsibility, and courage. It is truly a cardinal virtue. We ought to be talking it up more. Now can anyone think of a word for it?

The Honesty Revolution

The Internet is famously full of rants and falsehoods but in the next 20 or 30 years it will foster a revolution in personal honesty. In fact, the revolution has already begun.

Why not be honest? There is no need to pretend. All the secrets are out and all the stigmas are gone. Intimacy is in our grasp and we can take it without fear.

The Secrets Are Out

The Internet has taught us that we’re all flawed. If a politician lies or even exaggerates, sites like Politifact will expose the falsehood. If priests abuse children, it can no longer be covered up; within a few years a Google search for Catholic Church scandal will yield over 11 million hits. Nor are the problems of the common man hidden: Google personal problem forums and you’ll have over 312 million places where you may discover that many people struggle with the same issues you do — even people from sub-cultures that present themselves as having all the answers.

The Internet even reaches into the past. Anyone who is curious can discover the grave flaws of the founders of her religion, the actual behavior of people in the supposedly good old days, the dubious history of his holy texts. Nothing is secret anymore.

The Stigmas Are Gone

It’s no wonder that stigmas have fallen. It turns out that every scandalous thought and behavior has always been with us, and now we all know it. If you assert otherwise, anyone with an Internet connection will laugh at you.

Fading, too, are the stigmas of mental illness, physical handicaps and serious disease. College students now get lectures about STDs as part of freshman orientation and we can now say plainly that someone died of cancer rather than “after a long illness.”

We no longer keep secrets nor maintain pretense because we don’t have to.

The New Intimacy

The new generation knows this and routinely discloses to the world what their grandparents would have hesitated to whisper in private, and what their more remote ancestors would not have mentioned at all on pain of death. People post once-unmentionable details of their lives on Facebook. Bloggers like me try to attract an audience for arguments that once would have literally gotten us burned at the stake.

People want intimacy, and this is the new intimacy: sharing our lives with neither shame nor fear.

The Internet makes intimacy easy by offering a certain feeling of anonymity. You key your thoughts or secrets into a machine, whence they fly off to “the cloud.” Time, distance, technology and layers of abstraction separate disclosure from the discovery.

Warp Speed

Some folks wish certain topics would return to the realm of the unmentionable, and certain institutions would again be sacrosanct. This is misguided. Secrecy is the mother of hypocrisy and gratuitous shame; sanctity the father of corruption.

Now that we know each other’s secrets, now that it’s clear to everyone that We are not better than They, we can drop all pretense and take up honesty and compassion. What a welcome change!

Information has now reached warp speed: it is bending the values of society. That’s an exhilarating twist that can bring joy to all of us.

Contraception and Religious Freedom

President Obama has recently taken flak from the Right over his requirement that employer-funded insurance plans cover contraception. The top Republicans running for president have cast this as an issue of religious freedom.

I’m all for religious freedom. I would quite literally be dead without it. However, I wonder whether Romney and Santorum see the irony in their position, for the Bible is consistently against religious freedom.

Back when God was directly in charge of the nation of Israel (even before there were kings), here is how he chose to run things, according to the Bible (Deuteronomy 13:6-10):

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” … Show them no pity. … You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death…

Let that sink in. If your own child even whispers a suggestion to worship other gods, you are to stone him to death without pity. That’s how the God of Romney and Santorum ran things when he was in charge, according to the Bible.

Things are not much better in the supposedly kinder and gentler New Testament. The apostle Paul called down God’s curse (“May they go to hell,” basically) on all who would preach contrary to his message (Galatians 1:8-9):

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Lest we think that this is a harmless figure of speech, consider that Paul also said that if you take communion “unworthily” God might strike you with sickness or even death (1 Corinthians 11:27-30):

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

Let’s all work for religious freedom. For the Religious Right, the first step in that struggle must be to disavow passages like these.

The second step might be to apologize for the burnings-at-the-stake and other atrocities that their forebears carried out under the influence of passages like the one from Deuteronomy.

As a third step, if they’re really serious about religious freedom, the Religious Right could lead the way to removing blasphemy laws from the books. In my state of Massachusetts, Chapter 272, Section36 is still on the books:

Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

Those steps would communicate loud and clear that the Religious Right really are concerned about religious freedom, and not just about getting their own way. They would also show a humility that would do a lot to foster dialog with the more secular part of the political spectrum.