What is the worst sin you can commit?
The usual candidate for worst sin is pride. It was pride that caused Satan to fall, as it was pride that made him say “I will not serve.”
Much bad behaviour these days still comes from an overweening idea of one’s own importance. The refusal to serve others, and the stubborn belief that they are in fact there to serve you, is the cause of much suffering in the world.
But most of us understand this. We are all, unless we are saints, to some extent self-obsessed. We all have an over inflated idea of our own importance, but most of us do our best to rein it in. Social mores help us in this. Most obsessives are terrible bores, and we do not want to seem boring.
But if pride is a more or less universal human failing, cruelty is not. Most of us are revolted by cruelty. It seems unnecessary, capricious and arbitrary. We all condemn cruelty to animals. Remember the lady who put the cat in the bin? She was the subject of universal condemnation. Ironically, she was in the end the object of much cruelty herself.
Cruelty seems to be in the rise in our society. We pride ourselves on being humane to cats, but we are most cruel to our own kind.
Consider these recent cases.
An elderly retired teacher, Christopher Jefferies, was viciously persecuted by several national newspapers, who insinuated he was a murderer. His hair, his love of poetry, his harmless lifestyle, all were portrayed in a lurid light. The seriousness of this ‘monstering’ was reflected in the compensation he was awarded by the courts for this shocking defamation of character. But one assumes that the people who read about him in the papers enjoyed doing so, and the people who wrote and published these defamatory articles realised they had an audience for them.
Again we have the case of Lord McAlpine, a blameless man, whose supposed unmasking as a criminal was greeted with howls of glee from the twittermob.
This sort of behaviour is simply cruel. It is cruel to want to see people punished, even if those people are guilty, and even more so if they are innocent. The last public execution in England took place in 1868, though hanging, drawing and quartering were not officially abolished until a little time later. Such practices were recognised as cruel and unnecessary, and if anyone were to advocate them today, then they would surely be looked on as very strange indeed. Yet it is commonplace for us, if not to hang people in public in front of jeering mobs, then at least to witness jeering mobs conduct virtual lynchings online.
Even if someone were guilty of murder or paedophilia, surely they would still be guaranteed a minimum of decent treatment? And yet, at the height of the Twitter persecution, not a shred of decency was afforded Lord McAlpine. The people who sneered at him, and who sneered at Christopher Jefferies, need not just to pay compensation (though that too), they need to repent. And yet Mr Jefferies says that he has had no apology. That is a very sad.
In neither case above was the holding up of a person to public ridicule and contempt in any way in the public interest. Nor were the attacks on Mr Jefferies or Lord McAlpine worthy uses of free speech. Free speech is important, and it is sometimes important too to speak truth to power, but that is no defence in these cases. It is hard to detect in what way Mr Jefferies was a public figure, and Lord McAlpine has lived in retirement for many years. Rather, one suspects, both affairs were sensationalist journalism at its worst, and reflect badly on the British public, who love to see innocent people monstered in this way. We need to be kinder, and we need to repent.
One practical way forward to a better moral future is to stop buying tabloid newspapers, and stop watching the sort of television programmes that promote cruelty. Moreover we need to boycott the work of journalists and broadcasters who promote hatred and contempt for their fellow human beings, even the guilty.