EP20: Death of the Doctrine of Charity

Are you familiar with the “Doctrine of Charity?” If not, you probably would never learn about it from observing American culture at the moment. Maybe we need to do something about that…

Show Notes

What the world needs now, is love*, sweet love*

No not just for one, but for everyone

* In the form of the Doctrine of Charity.

(Not proud of) my nature

I’ve lived my entire life like a mid-80s-Dave-Schultz-with-the-Broadstreet-Bullies-eque (Google it; also, see video at the bottom of this post) hockey enforcer: waiting for, and sometimes actually seeking out, conflict.

It takes very little to set me off.

I am confrontational and aggressive.

I am quick to drop the proverbial gloves.

I look for opportunities to debate and argue.

About anything.

In any setting, situation or scenario.

With anyone I happen to encounter, in virtually any and every context.

I often ask people to step out of a line at Starbucks or the grocery if they are talking too loudly on their phone and obviously annoying me. Or someone else, for that matter.

Not infrequently, I will ask people in public places to quiet down, or to control their children.

Three times (THREE!) in the past week (aka, every single time I ate out), I have asked to be reseated in restaurants because someone at a nearby table was talking way too loud.

In any restaurant where I don’t like the music being played, I ask them to change it.

If you could see the way I drive, it would probably horrify you. How aggressive am I? All of the following have happened to me while behind the wheel of a car:

  • I’ve been cursed and yelled at hundreds of times through the open windows of other drivers’ cars.
  • I’ve been flipped off thousands of times.
  • I’ve had guns pulled on me. On two different occasions. (Though, so far, no shots have been fired, so there’s that. #blessed)
  • I’ve had a bottle broken on the side of my car while involved in a dual with another car, both of us driving about 95 miles an hour on the Ohio Turnpike (and, FWIW, driving 95 on the Ohio Turnpike is the equivalent of driving 110 on just about any other highway in America).
  • I’ve had people try to run me off the road. Many times.
  • I’ve had people try to run me off the road while riding my motorcycle (RIP, BMW S1000R, you crazy, beautiful animal, you; I miss you!).
  • Several times, I’ve had people follow me for long stretches because I did something to upset them. I had a guy follow me – and when I say “follow,” I mean he was IN MY TRUNK, and couldn’t be shaken using a variety of maneuvers I tried that usually work (e.g., slowing down when approaching an intersection, then flooring it so as to time the light and go through right as it is turning red, forcing the follower to run a clear red light), to the tune of over 10 miles on local streets. You haven’t lived until you’ve had someone A FOOT BEHIND YOU for 20+ minutes on slow moving surface streets. The only way I was able to get rid of him was by driving to my local police station, assuming he wasn’t going to assault me in broad daylight 20 feet from armed police officers.

The Doctrine of Charity

The point of this post is that, for the most part, I’ve lived my life in a manner that is the exact, polar opposite of what is the point of this post, which is something called the “Doctrine of Charity.”

I first became aware of the Doctrine of Charity while doing an Uncphew podcast with my nephew, Brendon Lemon.

Brendon was a philosophy major in college (you know, because it’s not already hard enough for today’s young people to get a job), and I assume that is where he learned it.

Brendon explained that, in a nutshell, the Doctrine of Charity suggests that we are to interpret what others say and do in the best and most positive light possible.

I was surprised that, at my advanced age, I’d never heard of this concept before.

Then again, I wasn’t a philosophy major (I foolishly majored in accounting, because, you know, career and stuff), so maybe I should cut myself some slack.

Per Wikipedia, the Doctrine of Charity (or “principle of charity”) “requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. According to Simon Blackburn “it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject’s sayings.””

Summarizing, the Doctrine of Charity states that we are to give others the benefit of the doubt, and that we are to interpret what they say in the most positive and forgiving manner possible.

The Doctrine of Charity reminds me of this excerpt in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As an aside, I think many of us – and that certainly includes me – would fare poorly when our behavior is viewed through that specific lens.

But I digress.

Our current state of affairs

Back on point, I think it’s fair to say that, as a culture, in the America of right now, circa 2019, we may be at an all-time low in terms of collectively living the Doctrine of Charity.

Look at almost any Facebook post that’s even remotely controversial or, God forbid, political in nature, and odds are good you will see a veritable clinic on the absence of this doctrine.

People attack one another at the drop of a hat.

Far too often, people twist, turn, manipulate and skew what others say in the most negative and unforgiving manner possible.

Not only are many of us not even remotely objective, but we are also far too often guilty of not even reading things as they are actually written.

As an example, in the aftermath of several recent shootings, Ryan Bokros (a friend of mine who lives in Houston), wrote this on Facebook:

Viewing this through the lens of the Doctrine of Charity, here is how I read that:

  • It is tragic that 34 people have died in the last two days as a result of senseless shootings.
  • People tend to react with a high degree of emotion to deaths of this kind.
  • In similar periods of time, we lose far more lives for a variety of other, less sensational or politically charged reasons. People don’t seem to care nearly as much about deaths that result from these other causes.
  • It appears that we as a people are driven more by emotion than by facts.
  • All lives matter. Perhaps we should care about, and take action to prevent and or mitigate, all unnecessary deaths, not just the ones that lead the 24/7/365 media hype cycle.

I then read all the comments.

As you can imagine – again, given the nature of today’s cultural climate – my reaction was in the minority. Many had a different take on Ryan’s post.

Some interpreted his comments as being callous and insensitive.

Some felt he was making light of those who lost their lives to the senseless shootings that triggered his post.

They didn’t see the point Ryan was really making, which is that all lives matter, and that we should perhaps care about every “senseless” death relatively equally, regardless of cause.

Here are a few examples of comments evidencing a lack of the Doctrine of Charity (these comments were copied and pasted verbatim):

What’s that supposed to mean? That it shouldn’t matter? WTH?

it’s simply trying to minimize the situation by saying “but why don’t you care as much about this that or the other”. You don’t say to someone who just told you the have cancer “oh, that’s too bad. Well my friend has leukemia and my accountant had a stroke, soooooooo”

Spectacle? You’re comparing common societal statistics vs mass murder by terrorists.

I find it frankly obscene that you’d use words like ‘spectacle’ to refer to acts of domestic terrorism.

you’re deflecting in the most callous disgusting way, Ryan. And you’re smart enough to know that you’re doing it. I’m not interested in engaging on this beyond that.

So very disappointed in this post. It is tone deaf and completely devoid of empathy.

I wanted to share an illustration of what it looks like when people don’t actively practice the Doctrine of Charity, and Ryan’s post just happened to be the first one I thought of, simply because it happened immediately before I wrote this blog.

Had I taken a few extra minutes, I probably could have found many other, even better examples of how so few of us appear to be practicing the Doctrine of Charity.

You know exactly what I am talking about, because the tone and tenor I observed in the reactions to Ryan’s post are sadly typical and, for the most part, the norm these days, particularly when it comes to online engagement.

Check please!

In fact, online discourse has become SO negative, and SO toxic, that I have all but abandoned all forms of social media at this point.

And if you know me at all, that is really saying something.

Over the course of the last decade, I feel I have “lived” online almost as much as, if not more than, virtually anyone I know personally.

So much so that, primarily because of the insane amount of time I was spending online, I was invited by the real estate industry’s number one news source, Inman News, to participate in a national speaking tour – called “Agent Reboot” – back in 2010.

In fact, at the very first stop on that tour – in Seattle, on August 18, 2010 – in the audience Q&A after I spoke, Glenn Sanford, the founder and CEO of eXp, asked me if I knew how many Tweets I had Tweeted in my first year on Twitter.

I answered truthfully: “I have no idea.”

Sanford then responded with this: “You averaged 42.7 Tweets PER DAY.”

He actually did the math on that.

I can only assume he did that because he was surprised at the incredible volume of my activity on Twitter.

That specific tidbit – my insanely high Tweets-per-day count over the course of an entire year – was actually written about in an article that appeared in Inman News the following day.

Inman News wrote yet another article that commented on the volume of my Twitter activity in 2011.

I drove my Twitter following all the way up over 55K at one point.

Now? While I still post occasionally, it’s entirely business-related, and I cannot recall the last time I had an actual conversation on Twitter. I have gone entire months without even logging into Twitter. I now spend literally zero time there, other than the time it takes me to post, which I do, at most, once per day.

On Facebook, I started an industry-specific group in 2011 that has grown to now include over 22K members.

At its peak, I was spending probably six to eight hours PER DAY, very often doing that seven days per week, moderating and driving conversations within that group.

In fact, Inman News wrote another article calling me a “Kingpin of Real Estate Facebook Groups” back in 2015.

Now? I have gone weeks without even looking at the group.

Today, the level of my involvement within the group is probably 1% of what it was at its peak, when we had multiple 1,000+ comment threads and posts, and when activity within the group was frequently written about in the larger real estate media.

In 2016, Inman News wrote yet another article, in which I was named one of the “21 Most Interesting People in Real Estate,” largely because of the various things I had done online.

I’ve even co-authored several books on the use of technology in real estate, had what was the #1 podcast in real estate at the time back in 2011-2012, and was named one of the “Top 20 Social Influencers in Real Estate” as part of the Swanepoel Power 200 list.

Not once, but twice.

Finally, even the New York Times recommended me because of my work online and in social media.

I say none of that to brag – at all, because none of that matters much in reality, and I would give anything to have most of the time back I invested in most of that stuff – but rather to highlight that I have truly lived online, at a very high level, and for quite a long time.

When I analyze why my behavior has changed so radically, and why I spend so little time online now, the best and most succinct answer I can give you is this: because of the almost complete absence of the Doctrine of Charity in our world today.

My two cents

All that said, and now shifting back to the larger, more macro perspective, when it comes to the way we are currently dealing with one another, it feels as if many of us are far more interested in:

  • Replying quickly rather than accurately.
  • Advancing or defending an ideology or a parroted narrative rather than in actually having an adult conversation.
  • Advancing or defending an ideology or a parroted narrative rather than in the truth.
  • “Winning” an argument rather than in getting to the correct answer or the right information, whatever that may be.

These tendencies have been exacerbated by the fact that so much of our discourse with others now happens online, where we are insulated and physically removed from the people with whom we are engaging.

Just as we see in incidents of road rage – where that same insulation and separation can turn seemingly almost anyone and everyone into a homicidal maniac – so too we often say things to others behind the safety and security of keyboard and distance that we would never, ever, EVER say to someone’s face.

And while I am a huge proponent of technology in general, this is one area where I sometimes wonder if all the good things that tech can and often does add to our lives are not outweighed – and, perhaps, even completely eclipsed ­– by the breakdowns and the toxic, corrosive trends in our society that I believe technology has enabled, advanced and or accelerated.

Slowly permeating everything

And there is an even more insidious aspect to this, which I’ll call the “carryover effect.”

That is, because the climate of online discourse has become so dark, confrontational and negative, and because that climate has become so “normal” now, we may be carrying all that negativity over into the real, physical world.

All that toxicity may be becoming ingrained in the very DNA of collective society.

Whereas at one time not that long ago that vibe felt confined to “online only,” it now feels as if it may be creeping into every aspect of life.

As one example, I feel it manifesting in the level of road range I see lived out on my local streets every day.

It is definitely increasing.

At one time it felt like I was the only lunatic on the road.

Now? It feels like there are a bunch of crazies like me out there.

And that, my friends, is something we most certainly do not need.

Ergo, we need to do something to nip this shiznit in the bud.


My challenge to us (you AND me)

In conclusion, the glaringly obvious point of this blog is this: the world could use a major infusion of the Doctrine of Charity right now.

With that as the goal, I would respectfully ask you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I practice the Doctrine of Charity?
  • Do I give others the benefit of the doubt?
  • Do I interpret what others say and do in the most positive manner possible?
  • Do I deal with other people honestly and objectively?
  • Am I truly interested in the truth, or in defending and advancing my point of view?
  • Am I open to being wrong?
  • Am I open to having my mind changed?

As I said at the beginning of this blog, I am as guilty of not living the Doctrine of Charity as anyone.

I am a horribly imperfect human being, and this – not living the Doctrine of Charity – is just one of a myriad of character flaws and weaknesses I am keenly aware that I possess.

The good news: I recognize this about myself, and I am sincerely trying to get better.

I know it will take time to get where I want to be on this issue, but I can see progress, and just admitting that I needed to improve in this area was a big step forward in and of itself.

My challenge to you: critically assess the degree to which you are practicing the Doctrine of Charity.

I know, when others are screaming in your face and not dealing with you fairly and objectively, it is difficult to be the adult.

Very often, it is hard to take the high road.

At time, it can feel nearly impossible to turn the other cheek.

But – unless we want the current state of our culture to become permanent, the thought of which absolutely horrifies me – we’re all going to have to bend a little.

We’re all going to have to be a bit more open-minded and objective.

We’re all going to have to give each other a little more benefit of the doubt.

The future of public discourse – and maybe even the long-term health of our culture itself – hangs in the balance.

PS – Thanks, Brendon. That philosophy major wasn’t a complete waste after all… 😉