Several weeks ago, I was visiting a church, and after the service a man came up to me and noticed my Mr. T t-shirt. This is not unusual. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about it. He pointed out the phrase “Shut Up Fool!” and displayed some mock offense. I joked that the phrase was only directed at some people (fools). It was only after this point that I began to suspect he was serious. The conversation went downhill from there. He seemed to have a problem with my bringing the wrong message to worship the lord with. I tried to explain who Mr. T was and why he was popular, but this guy claimed to already be quite familiar with him, and from the tone of his voice found him more than a little disgusting. His biggest problem with me seemed to be that I didn’t bring a message that edified anybody.
I don’t wear messages to edify anybody. Who does? That isn’t their purpose. I wear this particular shirt because I like Mr. T, I like his character B. A. Baracus, and I like the show the A-Team. It is meant only as a point of connection for others I meet who are also fans. In fact, it could be the starting point for fellowship, which could in time lead to edification, so I fail to see the problem.
There was no reason for this guy to take it as directed to him. It was a textual message, printed years ago, and put on hours earlier that morning, lacking any context to indicate who it might be directed at. I have to wonder, does this guy get angry at billboards for interrupting his radio show while he drives? Does he stop at stop signs and wait for them to say go? Does he read stories and assume that he is every character? Does he do what these characters are told? When he reads all that the book of proverbs has to say about fools and foolishness, does he take it personally? This guy might need to be locked up before he hurts himself or others.
Even though I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with Mr. T’s forthright ways, I’m not necessarily condoning his behavior either by simply wearing his image. If I happened to own one, I might one day wear a shirt with Darth Vader on it. I like the character and the story of Star Wars, but I certainly don’t condone all of Vader’s actions.
That said, I have no problem with calling fools fools or telling them to shut up. Sometimes it is the only right thing to do. To be clear, I don’t believe in suppressing speech, interrupting, or not giving fools a chance to rebut. Doing so only drives them to desperate acts to be heard. However, when it is my turn to speak, I may tell them that what they are saying is foolishness, is distracting us from the important issues, and they need to stop it. Even Jesus did something similar when he called the Pharisees whitewashed graves.
In the bible, we are told to think the best of people, but many of us think the worst. This applies to the realm of politics as well. Sarah Palin puts up a website with target symbols over certain districts with certain representatives she wants people to defeat at the ballot box and people assume she wants people to kill them. Muslims want to put up a mosque in New York and people assume that they are planning to use it to gloat over their “victory” over us on 9-11. CNN asks some unusual questions about chicken wings in the Republican debate and people assume that any candidate answering them disgraced the democratic process and isn’t truly on our side. Worse, if they laughed at the questions instead of becoming angry at the distraction, people assume they have a screw loose upstairs. I for one will never become angry simply because others want me to be. I will always try to think well of people until their offense becomes so clear that I have no choice but to think poorly of them.
What do you think of when you see someone with wolf images on their shirt? Beautiful and interesting creatures important to the ecological balance – or bloodthirsty killing machines? What do you think of when you see someone with star images on their shirt? Beautiful and interesting sources of illumination – or deadly gravitational traps filled with superhot, radiation-spewing plasma? What do you think of when you see someone with an image of the cross on their shirt? A symbol of hope for salvation from our sins and eternal death – or ancient Roman execution equipment? Why think the worst?
So, which promotes more incivility? Mr. T or the suppression of Mr. T? It seems that everybody these days is complaining about how uncivil the political discourse in America has become, but often, those examples of incivility that they point out and try to suppress, are really only misunderstood to be uncivil. Sarah Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” comment is one of them. Blaming her and the tone of the right in general for the actions of Jared Loughner is actually promoting more incivility than if Sarah were simply ignored. The reason is that there are a lot of people that sympathize with Sarah that didn’t take her comment the same way and perhaps even used it themselves. When they hear others calling Sarah uncivil, they also take it as an attack on them. Since Sarah’s comments could reasonably be considered innocent, it is best to take them that way. Likewise, protesting the building of the “ground zero” mosque is actually promoting more incivility than if it were simply ignored. The reason is that a lot of Muslims (if not all of them) probably have reasons other than “gloating” to support it, and they resent being accused of something they probably aren’t guilty of.
I’m not saying that those against the mosque are racist or xenophobic; they may simply be confused. Likewise, I’m not saying that everybody who had problems with Sarah’s comments are all Palin-haters. Though I might secretly suspect these things, I recognize that I truly don’t know, and for the purposes of civil discourse I will take their stated motives at face value. Although I perceive them to be thinking the worst of others, I still refuse to think the worst of them. Generally, casually dismissing the rants of angry people only makes them angrier, so I won’t do that. Only when it becomes clear that one is totally unwilling to reason things through will I give up on them, and I will never give up on whole classes of people; it must be done on a case-by-case basis. I’m not going to show anger (if I can help it). I’m going to be nice.
And to those that have a problem with that: SHUT UP FOOL!