Condemnation… HIV-type criticism

Judge not… – Jesus (Matthew 7:1a, NIV)

A tangle of threads from the latter part of last week provide the starting point for some reflections over the past weekend:

– Thursday the world was saddened by the re-emerging story of a 4-year-old Mississippi girl. She’d been HIV-positive when born but thought to have been cured by aggressive therapies during the first 18 months of her life. Recent blood tests reveal the virus has returned. Words can’t begin to capture the grief here.

– News media covered the developing story of House Republican plans to sue the president: we’re told the lawsuit will focus on the administration’s decision to postpone the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that large employers provide health insurance for their workers. An energized House is passing innovative legislation to make this suit possible. Members of the House are also blaming the president for the immigration crisis posed by a sudden influx of undocumented children at our southern border; for warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza; and for more national ills.

– My pre-dawn reading Thursday chanced across some words on the damaging effects of criticism and condemnation.

– A DC-savvy colleague of many years shared later that day that he’d never seen the politics in Washington so polarized, divisive and toxic, and said that it was “going to get even worse before it gets better.”


First, the Mississippi tragedy. The disease’s return for the little girl stems from the nature of the human-immune-deficiency (HIV) virus, responsible for acquired-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV has proven resistant to anti-retroviral therapies because it mutates rapidly in response to conventional treatments. Other viruses present less of a moving target to the body’s own immune system and to pharmaceuticals used to attack them. Please hold this thought.

Next, the impact of criticism and condemnation. Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California (who also held visiting appointments at UCLA and the University of Colorado) had this to say in his 1997 book, The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in God:

…what is it, exactly, that we do when we condemn someone? When we condemn another we really communicate that he or she is, in some deep and possibly irredeemable way, bad – bad as a whole, and to be rejected. In our eyes the condemned is among the discards of human life. He or she is not acceptable. We sentence that person to exclusion. Surely we can learn to live well and happily without doing that. [emphasis added]

Mr. Willard expounds on this and its implications for several pages, every last bit of which is worth the read. His bottom line? Condemnation and criticism have terrible effects on us mentally and spiritually, whether we’re on the receiving end or (even) dishing it out. Psychologically, it’s as if we’ve been hit by a virus.

Political analysts and historians remind us of what we know to be true from personal experience: the criticism virus has been infecting those of us in Washington, DC for a long time. The reality is that the disease is not confined inside the Beltway. And it’s not confined to politicians. It infects the commercial world. Scientists – yes, even scientists! – also carry it. We all suffer from the malady. And it’s congenital; like that young child from Mississippi, we’re born with it.

But the state of politics in today’s Washington (the remaining two bullets in the list above) suggests that the virus now epidemic across Washington is a new and especially dangerous strain. It’s more a condemnation virus than a criticism virus; for purposes here, following the practice of our medical brethren, let’s label it the C-2 virus versus C-1.

(With some oversimplification), past political criticism was more about ideas, about policies. It stemmed from political differences about the best ways and means to maintain common values and shared ends. Congressman from both parties left their families back in their home districts, and when in Washington shared dormitory rooms near the Capitol. They played golf together on weekends. They bonded and built inter-personal trust even as they disagreed on policy matters.

Today’s political debates cut far deeper. Social change has members of Congress living with their families (a good thing!), going back to their constituencies on weekends (also good) versus staying here with their Congressional brethren (a tradition that’ll be missed). Trust is in corresponding measure endangered. Compromise is on the wane; combat is on the rise. The combatants (no longer mere debaters) tell us that their opponents are not just wrong-footed; they’re evil. They’re lawbreakers, guilty of pre-meditated crimes and impeachable offenses. They tell us that legislation needs an overlay of litigation.

The C-2 virus has much in common with HIV; by comparison, it makes the C-1 virus look like the common cold or at worst, the flu. Like HIV, C-2 is dangerous in three ways:

Deadly. First of all, C-2 looks to be lethal. Those infected believe that opponents must never be allowed to look effective or be seen to be making progress on any issue, whether immigration, or foreign policy, or health care, or national security, critical infrastructure, or jobs, or education and innovation. Both parties no longer see their task as to work for accommodation and compromise to identify and implement the best middle paths to these issues. Instead they obsess with setting up the party in power for failure (whether that party controls the White House, or the Senate, or the House of Representatives, for in fact this malady is bi-partisan). For example, Senate obstructionists work to ensure that the ranks of executive and judicial branches remain perpetually hollowed out, without a full complement of duly-selected leaders at the top. If that means that the country makes no progress on any national priorities for the next two or four or even six years, then so be it. If that means sacrificing America’s place in the world – as a financial or military superpower, or more importantly as the keeper of certain widely admired values, or even a national neighbor who can be relied upon in time of global crisis rather than tied up in domestic gridlock, then that’s how it must be.

Mutating. The obsession with condemnation is sweeping, and swiftly hops from issue to issue as each comes to public focus. There’s little concern with consistency; leaders of every stripe are criticized for inaction and then, when they do act, are criticized for their action. If they fail to consult, they’re criticized for being unresponsive; if they consult, they’re criticized for waffling or being indecisive. Every national concern, every political issue, is aggressively studied – less with an eye toward how it might be solved, but more in the hopes that it will open a new avenue for condemnation.

Taxing the immune system. As a result, every celebrity, every corporate leader, every political leader in the public eye with a job to do and a reputation to protect has had to put an increasing amount of his/her resources into building an apparatus for damage control – in effect, building the political equivalent of an immune system. That damage control can’t be confined to print news, or broadcast or cable television, or the internet and its range of social media. It’s got to deal with all the criticism and condemnation, instantaneously, and over the long haul. Small wonder that presidential press secretaries and their counterparts in every other arena experience burnout and walk away.

We’re all into condemnation: you, me, everyone we know, all seven billion of us. We suffer from C-2, we’re carriers of C-2, and we infect others with it. [In the spirit of not adding any further condemnation, let me emphasize: I’m not criticizing this state of affairs; just saying.]

Like HIV (at the moment), there’s no cure for C-2. But like HIV, there is a coping strategy. HIV is held at bay worldwide not so much because of retrovirals but because medical communities and governments have communicated the risk and built awareness of risky behaviors: unprotected sex, sharing needles in drug use, and more: actions that are largely under our control.

In the case of C-2, all you and I have to do is simply commit to not condemning others. Easier said than done, but again, largely under our control. And worth the effort, because when and if we step aside from condemning others, then their condemnation of us loses its control over our lives and spirit. And if we lapse (and we will), no matter; we simply recommit to such tolerance and acceptance, and start anew.

Good news for the rest of the week.

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