John Locke argues that resistance to an established and historical government should not be undertaken lightly. Indeed, only when “a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people” should they consider revolt.
Jefferson adopts similar sentiments in the Declaration of Independence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes […]. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
I think we should take the same attitude toward judging the character of other people.
Though each of us is one person, we all have several selves and many voices. We use them in different relationships—professor, lecturer, spouse, parent, friend—and we bring them out for various effects in various circumstances. Sometimes we are formal, sometimes informal; sometimes friendly, sometimes surly; mature or immature, patient or rash, forgiving and charitable or prickly and touchy. Some of these voices represent ideals to which we aspire, others personages to which we wish (sometimes secretly) we could give expression. Some we’re proud of, some we regret, some we wished no one ever saw.
And so on. All of us are therefore in constant construction. We are always trying to encourage and emphasize some of our better or nobler selves while also trying to weaken or disregard some of our lesser or meaner selves. Sometimes we change our minds about what aspects of our personalities—which of our selves or voices—we wish to emphasize. And we all know which of our loved ones, friends, acquaintances, even strangers are likely to bring out which of our selves.
But the internet age makes it seem as if all of our various selves are the same, as if each of our voices were equally representative of our total personhood. That is false. Unfortunately, however, our behaviors have not yet adapted to the feedback from the new internet age. We hear, now, warnings to the effect that one ought always to assume that every single thing one utters in any context will be viewed, heard, or read by absolutely every single human being on the planet—and will be preserved forever and can never go away. Many people are learning this lesson the hard way, but it will be some time before it is fully reckoned into our habits and mores.
I fear that the eternal digital presence of everyone’s every word can allow us to rush to judge others based on comments made in contexts the utterer did not intend for people in other contexts to see, hear, or know. A single word, phrase, or sentence should not condemn a person’s entire character because it does not—contemporary appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—represent his entire character.
Condemning a person’s character is serious business. Speaking ill of a person’s character can affect that person in ways you will not know, long after you might have forgotten the ill words you spoke. Because now our judgments of others, especially our condemnations of others, last forever and can never go away no matter what—even if they are disproved or even retracted, at best you have both the condemnations and the retractions—they acquire a gravity commensurate with eternity.
There is always more to the story: context we do not know, background we are unfamiliar with, reasons we don’t understand. Unless, then, there is a clear pattern that cannot be interpreted any other way, unless a person has shown a long train of abuses, pursuing invariably the same discreditable designs, resist forming—and especially resist communicating—a condemnatory judgment. Even when you finally conclude, after long sober deliberation, that a negative judgment is warranted, consider whether the person’s faults warrant the permanent stain you are about to create.
I say: let people have their voices; understand that they have many selves; appreciate that they live in various contexts not all of which are appropriate for every other. Not only will this help save others from misinformed or underinformed judgments, not only will it save them from suffering from enduring criticism: it may also make for a more civilized society based on charity and toleration instead of distrust and acrimony.