In the Multitude of Words…

Thanks to Al Gore it seems like everybody knows (or thinks they know) what everybody else is doing and quite often seem to have an opinion about it. No doubt, some of this is good and helpful. Just as certainly, much of it is not so good and not helpful at all.

I wish there were some kind of clear, hard and fast rule that marks the boundary line which separates the legitimate need to know and right to comment from the sinful tendencies toward being a busybody. Are all matters of public knowledge really matters of legitimate interest and interaction? How do we define public knowledge anyway–someone posted something about it?

Seems like the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” line has been growing in popularity, but surely it needs to be balanced by the fact that some things are better left unspoken (cf. Ephesians 5:12). Exposing sin and error is vitally important, but I wonder about people whose whole life is spent digging in other people’s dumpsters looking for garbage about which to write.

As I said, there are no clear lines, but I don’t think that frees each of us from the responsibility of developing our own ideas about where the line should be drawn. Just because we may not all agree with the placement of the line, that doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort to live within a set of lines. A simple rule of thumb for me is whether the primary subjects of the discussion put themselves into it or whether others are talking about them. And when the subjects have asked for confidentiality, then there better be very clear and solid reasons for ignoring that request.

Another line that I think needs to be thought through is whether the things that I say in any discussion are actually public knowledge. There is a great temptation to offer up info that other people don’t have access to, and the power of that temptation is rooted in our pride. If we know something other people don’t know that gives us a certain insider status that puffs our importance. It is a devil’s bargain, though. What we gain in notoriety, we lose in credibility with those whose private info we just announced. People who can’t keep their mouths closed gradually lose access to important discussions simply because the people don’t want private discussions spread around carelessly and selfishly. It is better to be trustworthy than newsworthy.

An obvious line that is often crossed is the matter of honesty. It seems like we live in a day when being the first one to say something is of greater importance than being accurate in what we say. A clear news coverage example of that was how the press reported the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. They got just about everything wrong in the early reporting, but they kept running stuff out there because they are competing for viewers. To turn a twist on an old line, the modus operandi seems to be, “It’s easier to print a retraction than to get verification.”

People who are serious about the truth, though, need to walk more slowly, write more carefully, and most likely communicate less, not more. And we should communicate more directly, talking to people rather than about them. When we do need to take a stand against something, it is very important that we have our facts right or we will do more damage than good in the end–the people we critique will dismiss our valid points because we appear to be dishonest with the facts. It really is a shameful thing to do God’s work in the devil’s way, and, if we are honest about it, that is what gossip and lying is.

So, here are some questions I ask to help me think through how to handle news I hear: (1) is this truly a matter of public knowledge and appropriate for public comment?; (2) am I sure that the “facts” being stated here are accurate?; (3) should I talk to the people who are involved before saying anything publicly?, and (4) is it really any of my business?

I know that I have failed to apply these questions properly in the past. I also know that my answers to them will at times be different than how others would answer them. I guess I am not so concerned about everybody agreeing as much as everybody thinking about when and what they speak in public contexts. We will be accountable for our words, so I think this subject demands our careful attention.

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