Speak of others as you would have them speak of you is the rule for speech, I think, as I wrote in last week’s column for Aleteia, When Men Speak of All That Is Evil Against You. Anyone with any verbal gifts can easily hurt people badly, and even those without any verbal gifts can hurt with the simplest insults and abuse, and in either case to no good end. I said that I had done that many times, which I now much regret.
When looking for something else, I came across a short weblog item by Rod Dreher making the same point and with the same regret. It appeared when his Crunchy Con weblog was hosted by BeliefNet but I can’t find the link now. He begins by explaining that he doesn’t read Ann Coulter’s books.
What especially gets to me about Ann Coulter is that she identifies herself as a Christian (“a mean one”). National Review dropped her column when she said, in response to 9/11, that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” I know plenty of conservative Christians, but not a single one who would remotely want to do anything like that.
Truth to tell, I don’t think Coulter wants that — this is just shtick with her. She’s too smart for it not to be. But she plays into the stereotype that many people hold about Christians, especially conservative ones. I am all in favor of boldly speaking truth to power, but Coulter is very far from fulfilling that prophetic role. To put it mildly.
Let me make this personal. For much of my career, I was a professional film critic. There was nothing more fun than trashing a bad movie; in fact, there’s an inverse law of film reviewing that says the better a movie is, the harder it is to write about. I can remember sitting at my computer writing harsh, cutting, clever, extremely snide things about bad movies — and I even came to think of myself as a sort of virtuoso at that sort of thing, taking great pleasure in coming up with the most quotable nasty lines I could about a bad movie.
It’s been seven years since I reviewed for a daily paper, and I look back now on that aspect of my work with what you might call . . . shame. It’s not that some, and maybe most, of these turkeys didn’t deserve carving. It’s that I took pleasure in my own cruelty. Maybe it was becoming a father, maybe it was 9/11, maybe it was writing a book, or maybe it was all of these things, as well as beginning to mature in my Christian faith, that made me realize how — how to put this? — fragile all things human are.
It didn’t make me any less critical, I don’t think, but it did make me think about how to criticize. It is insufficient to hate the bad; we must also love the good, and it seems to me that if we are to be critics/pundits of any lasting worth, that love of the good must not only guide our writing, but the love of people should as well. I admit, this is hard for me. Really hard. But as a Christian, I have no choice. Neither does Ann Coulter, if she is what she says she is.
Thinking of oneself as a virtuoso is a great part of the appeal, on top of simple human cruelty. You’re exercising your craft and you’re doing it well, and to applause from readers — admittedly those who enjoy watching blood sports, but still, they’re happy and you’re doing something for them few others can do. And your targets: They’re big boys, they can take it, and anyway if they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t have gone into the kitchen in the first place. They deserve what you give them, and heck, maybe they’ll learn from the experience.
The thinking runs along those lines: I’m doing what I’m supposed to and it’s a fair fight and, if you must talk about the good, what I’m doing is really an act of charity to reader and target too. Which is an entirely worldly way of thinking. The Christian should be asking: What specific and concrete good does this do? Who does it help? If it helps anyone, how does it help them? Does it edify the reader or tempt him to uncharity? Does it correct the target or hurt him? Will it make reader and target better men? The writer has to be a kind of virtuoso of kindness.