Character and character assassination

To every man, this is taught: Thou art one with this Universal Being, and, as such, every soul that exists is your soul; and every body that exists is your body; and in hurting anyone, you hurt yourself, in loving anyone, you love yourself. As soon as a current of hatred is thrown outside, whomsoever else it hurts, it also hurts yourself; and if love comes out of you, it is bound to come back to you. For I am the universe; this universe is my body. I am the Infinite, only I am not conscious of it now; but I am struggling to get this consciousness of the Infinite, and perfection will be reached when full consciousness of this Infinite comes.

Swami Vivekananda

The last few weeks have seen persistent attempts at maligning and vilifying persons who are brave enough to speak out on a number of issues affecting the Guyanese society. Instead of focusing on the messages, some media houses continue to launch scathing attacks on these individuals. The circling of the wagons tends to be the order of the day in addressing the criticisms regardless of how justified they are.

Today, we explore what character is all about and how it can be destroyed through the process of character assassination.

What is character?

We often, we hear the expression that someone is a person of character or that he/she is devoid of character. “Character” comes from the Greek word “kharakter” meaning “engraved mark”, “symbol of imprint on the soul” and “instrument of marking” It is the aggregate of qualities that defines a person. These include intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behaviour, imagination, perception, emotions, love and hatred. Character is about one’s integrity, and ethical and moral self.

Accountability WatchThe renowned Indian religious scholar, Swami Vivekananda, argues that that both pleasure and pain are great teachers and that as they pass before a person’s soul they leave upon it different impressions. The result of these combined impressions is what is called man’s “character”. It is the aggregate of tendencies, the sum total of the bent of his mind. Misery and happiness are equal factors in the formation of character and in some cases misery is the greater teacher than happiness. He further argues that “if you really want to judge the character of a man, look not at his great performances. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do the most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is really the great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be”.

Character is the mental and moral qualities that distinguish an individual. According Pastor Eugene Harder of the New Hope Community Church, character is the gold that backs up the paper money which is your personality and hence your public image. It is the gold of your life, and when someone misrepresents and slanders another person, he/she is stealing the person’s gold. Sometimes in the public eye that gold is never replaced. Character grows like rings on a tree, slowly and deliberately. Character is what a person is when no one is looking.

James Davison Hunter in his book “The Death of Character” argues that character, in a classic sense, manifests itself as the autonomy to make ethical decisions always on behalf of the common good, and the discipline to abide by that principle. Character matters because without it trust, justice, freedom, community and stability are probably impossible. He identifies three qualities of true character: moral discipline; moral attachment and moral autonomy. Moral discipline involves self control, the quick and unquestioning obedience to duty, joyful contempt of hardship, and zest in arduous and difficult undertakings. It is also the quality that allows a person to not only bear hardships stoically but also to seek out rougher and more austere life.

Moral attachment is the commitment to a set of higher ideals and to acting, and if need be, sacrificing for the good of one’s community. Moral autonomy is the freedom to make ethical decisions. Controlled behaviour cannot be moral behaviour because it removes the element of discretion and judgment. Character enacts moral judgment and does so freely. Davison quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as having the view that men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong. He also referred to Plato’s discussion of society’s ideal leaders as the guardians of the Republic “who appear… on observation to be the most likely to devote their lives to do what they judge to be in the interest of the community, and who are never prepared to act against it”.

 Character assassination explained

Assassination is the intentional killing of a prominent person for political or religious purposes. While on a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy was the victim of an assassin’s bullets. Martin Luther King suffered the same fate.  Other historical figures that have fallen victims to assassins’ bullets include Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto.

Character assassination, as opposed to physical assassination, is the malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation. It is a deliberate and sustained effort to destroy the credibility and reputation of a person, institution, social group, or nation. While physical assassination is instantaneous, character assassination is a gradual process of destroying a person’s public image. The public is usually not aware of the machinations and intention behind the events which are often carried out without knowledge of who actually pulled the trigger. This evil and despicable act is rarely carried out by a single individual.

Character assassination involves three parties: the character assassin or agent, the “assassinated” or victim and the audience, whether the public or groups of individuals. Character assassins employ a mix of open and covert methods to achieve their goals, such as raising false accusations, planting and fostering rumours, and manipulating information, in an attempt to tarnish a person’s reputation. They also use various techniques to exaggerate, peddle half-truths, or manipulate facts to present an untrue picture of the targeted person. It is a form of defamation in an attempt to stifle truth and silence the messenger.

Character assassins use doublespeak and spread rumours, innuendo or deliberate misinformation aimed at destroying a person’s morals, integrity and reputation. They also spin information that is technically true but presented in a misleading manner, or without the necessary context. For example, a character assassin may state that a person owes the municipality millions of dollars in rates and taxes, without referring to the fact the municipality owes the individual a similar amount and for which an arrangement was made for a set-off. Another example is a claim that a person was sacked from a firm although he/she was made redundant through no fault of his/her own.

Character assassinations may result in the victim being rejected by his or her community, family, or members of the person’s work environment. Such acts are often difficult to reverse or rectify, and the process is likened to a literal assassination of a human life. The damage sustained can last a lifetime and, for historical figures, for many centuries after their death.

In politics, perhaps the most common form of character assassination is the spread of allegations that a candidate is not a truthful person; is unpopular with his/her family; does not have good relationship with his/her spouse or children; or does not enjoy respect from his/her colleagues. Other allegations could be that the person routinely engages in behaviour that is socially unacceptable. The person may be portrayed as holding beliefs that are not considered consistent with those within society, such as supporting racism or other forms of bigotry.

One is also reminded of McCarthyism that was practised in the United States during the period 1950 to 1956, the height of the Cold War. Thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers, and of disloyalty, subversion, or treason, without evidence this was so. Many lost their jobs, had their careers destroyed and were imprisoned.

Character assassination at the individual level, although perhaps equally serious, is different from that which is perpetuated in a state-sponsored campaign. The latter has more far-reaching implications. According to the authors of Ready, Aim, Fire! Character Assassination in Cuba, one of the earliest signs of a society’s compliance to loosening the reins on the perpetration of crimes (and even massacres) with total impunity is when a government favours or directly encourages a campaign aimed at destroying the dignity and reputation of its adversaries, and the public accepts its allegations without question. The mobilisation toward ruining the reputation of adversaries is the prelude to the mobilisation of violence in order to annihilate them, and official dehumanisation has always preceded the physical assault of the victims. The authors argue that “When the real history of a person is erased and replaced by a counterfeited image that others are meant to fear or reject, the offence equates with the literal murder of a human life…When decent people begin taking part in carrying out indecent actions, or showing indifference to them, a widespread ethical deterioration begins”.

Pastor Harder asserts that character assassination is the cold blooded murder of our most valuable personal asset and a violation of the Ninth Commandment: Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour. He suggests that we stop being character assassins and instead become builders of character, and that we must be proactive and praise the positive qualities of a person rather than criticizing him or her. He concludes that when you do so, you are watering the process of positive character development.

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