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Character vs. Characterizing

Let’s get character straight.  When a house has character, it means that it has a unique charm or a stately presence that evokes awe or nostalgia.  If you call a person a character, you mean that he or she has a magnetic personality, is unpredictable, or acts like a clown.  When you have character, it means (among other traits) that people see you as a principled person.  When people characterize someone, it means that they either have keen insight into the motives of others or else they have the capability to portray other people in the most derogatory way.  

Decency (and brains) demand that you take care of your character.  No holes in your integrity, no skeletons in your closet, no questionable associations, no long-ago statements to come back to haunt you, etc., etc.  You should strive to be honest, authentic and squeaky-clean.  These are the imperatives of social interaction.  If you maintain this kind of character, you’re fine.

Except, you’re not. 

As long as there are detractors who seek to characterize you as someone you’re not, then the horrors of vilification remain a distinct possibility.  Your slightest mistake will become a mortal sin.  Your bumbling will be intentional destruction, your mumbling will show that you are an imbecile, and your stumbling demonstrates your ineptness at life.  These spinmeisters can so twist facts and turn reality inside out that they can create a whole new persona for you. 

No less a personage than Abraham Lincoln suffered attacks from these editorial mercenaries.  Mark Bowden of the Atlantic writes, “Sure, we revere Lincoln today, but in his lifetime the bile poured on him from every quarter makes today’s Internet vitriol seem dainty. His ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed.”  For adoring fans 150 years later, these pejorative assessments of the most admired president in history seem unthinkable.  Bowden continues.  “No matter what Lincoln did, it was never enough for one political faction and too much for another. Yes, his sure-footed leadership during this country’s most-difficult days was accompanied by a fair amount of praise, but also by a steady stream of abuse—in editorials, speeches, journals, and private letters—from those on his own side, those dedicated to the very causes he so ably championed. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was ‘a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.’ Henry Ward Beecher, the Connecticut-born preacher and abolitionist, often ridiculed Lincoln in his newspaper, The Independent (New York), rebuking him for his lack of refinement and calling him ‘an unshapely man.’”

So, what if Lincoln had succumbed to his critics?  What if they had convinced him that he was indeed a “barbarian,” that he had nothing to contribute to the welfare or healing of a nation in turmoil?  The Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural Address, his conduct of a winning war to keep the union intact—none of these historic accomplishments and events would have happened.  Lincoln proved that character trumps characterizations. 

Long knives were out over other renowned historical figures in American history as well.  Ulysses S. Grant was soundly rapped as a lucky drunkard as a General and an unsuccessful President.  Historians say W. T. Sherman, was “a bundle of contradictions” and “one of the most irritating men of the times,” along with charges of racism and cruelty.  Dwight D. Eisenhower’s critics blamed him for ramping up the cold war and pinned the role of “appeaser” on him because he failed to censure Joseph McCarthy, the communist scaremonger.  Ronald Reagan came under heavy fire for allegedly being in bed with big business, showing hostility to the environment, getting America involved in Afghanistan, and bungling the Iran-Contra arms affair.  Writers often ridiculed Reagan for falling asleep during cabinet meetings and security briefings.  “Reagan’s reputation for snoozing even invited a protest: In 1983, steel and auto workers marched on the White House at 4 a.m. to “wake up the president” to the effects of his economic policy. Reagan said he slept through that, too.” (Daniel Engber, Indeed, if the opponents had their way, few noteworthy people would remain standing. 

Of course, Jesus Christ holds the all-time record for receiving harsh and malicious criticism.  His enemies characterized him a winebibber, an associate of sinners, a law-breaker, a blasphemer, an insurgent, a rabble-rouser and an evil-doer.  In one discourse with the Pharisees, they resorted to vicious name-calling to His face.  “Then the Jews answered and said to Him, ‘Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?’” John 8:48 (NKJV) They were not merely engaging in artful rhetoric.  They had murder in their hearts. “Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.”  John 8:59 (NKJV) Their choice of Barabbas over Jesus proved that they operated out of personal animosity against Jesus, not their purportedly noble intentions of pursuing truth and justice. 

Unfortunately, your public reputation is subject to manipulation, political agenda, popular opinion and spin.  You are not who you are.  You are who people say you are, at least as far as your reputation goes.  The worst outcome to false characterizations happens when a person caves or changes position to appease his or her enemies.  (The catch is that flipping is met with equal or greater derision!)

True nobility reveals itself when the literary storm rages on but does not succeed in destroying its subject.  Instead, the strong person stands resolute and unbending despite the blows—and often because of them.  I have observed that people of character live on a higher plane than those who would demean them.

Moreover, I have noticed that most complainers have neither the talent or fortitude to take the initiative, forge the strategy, lead the movement or make the substantial difference in the world that the one they carp at does.  And old saying goes, “Those who can’t do, teach.”  I would modify that to say that those who can’t do, complain. 

Invest in character.  If you do, the false characterizations will eventually fall apart. 

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