I was reading a post at another blog this week when a thought occurred to me that had been triggered by a letter to me from RJS (a faithful blog reader here). This blogger, and I have no desire to pick on the person and so will avoid all specifics, was observing that one person (A) had unfairly described another person’s (B) thinking. In the process of so describing, however, that person (C) was not entirely fair to the person (A) he/she was criticizing. Why is this so hard for us? Here’s my major thought.
We need to distinguish between “caricaturize” and “characterize.” The latter means to describe the (genuine) characteristics of an idea, a person, or a movement. To call an “evangelical” a fundamentalist, or close-minded, or a Luddite, is to caricaturize. To call emerging “deniers of truth” or “relativists” is to caricaturize. To “caricaturize” is to describe by exaggeration or to describe by reduction, and to use such description in order to ridicule, to dominate, to persuade, or to control.
To say that politicians trade in “caricature” during election time may characterize some, but it would be unfair to say all “caricaturize” all the time. To say “politicians caricaturize” is, in my judgment, to caricaturize.
Now, why do we do this? And, most importantly, why is it so difficult for us to describe our opponents or those with whom we differ in ways that are “characterizing” rather than “caricaturizing”?
Such a question leads me to think we do this because we fear the truth, we fear that a characterizing of another may bring them just too close to us when our intent is to distance (and even demonize). To be fair to the person puts our overall disposition to another person at risk.
To love others means to characterize them; to caricaturize them (except when appropriate) is not to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One of the first levels of critical thinking schools — and here I trade in being a teacher who has been asked to do far too much investigation of educational outcomes — is to learn to describe another person’s thoughts and beliefs (1) in their terms and (2) without evaluation. In other words, until a person can “characterize” properly, that person is not yet a critical thinker. If our attempts at characterizing end up in caricaturizing, we need to back off until our head cools.
So, my first commandment for the blog world is this: Do not caricaturize. To be sure, that’s a prohibition. So the first commandment might be: Please characterize others well.
Lord, forgive us.