The Content of Their Character

January 18, 2021-

In the decades recently passed, we have seen the most consistently proven of truths and facts dissected, disputed and set on equal footing with the most outlandish and refutable of falsehoods, all in the name of false equivalency and moral relativism. Very often, this is done in the name of preserving a social system which itself depends on hierarchy.

So it is, that the importance placed by Martin Luther King, Jr, in his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., on “the content of their character”, with respect to the judgment people make of one another, has become the speech’s second centerpiece, after “I have a dream…” As important as character is, it is not grounds for ignoring all other aspects of a person’s being. Character, indeed, can change-and hopefully for the better, with edification and growing awareness.

Thomas Jefferson’s hidebound, fear-laden writings, which denied the ability of enslaved African-Americans to produce intellectual works, such as Phillis Wheatley’s volume of poetry, could be said to betray a lack of character on his part. The flaw, however, and other parts of his character, would later be balanced, however, by his producing the Declaration of Independence, and contributions towards the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln’s anger towards Native Americans, a product of his coming of age, in a contested area of the Midwest and his assessment that enslaved people were 3/5 of a free citizen, would be challenged by Frederick Douglass, and others, leading to the Emancipation Proclamation, and a pardoning of Sioux warriors-the latter largely ignored by military officers on the ground, in the High Plains.

Character matters, yet it must be, as Lincoln also said, affected by “the better angels of our nature”. A rogue can be edified, tamed and redirected to be a person of willing service. A charlatan can be, albeit through consistent retribution for misdeeds, made to regard others in an honest and loving light. The great figures of the Twentieth Century-Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mandela, Churchill, and King himself, all had roguish tendencies, in their early years, negative qualities that were, to a greater or lesser extent, subsumed or overcome, by a draw towards advancing the common good.

So it is that, when individually assessing another person, in the age of instant judgement and cynicism, looking towards that person’s better angels becomes imperative, both for the mutual good of the judge and adjudicated and for the common weal.

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