The problem with how we talk about Caitlyn and Josh

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This post will not be popular – of that I’m certain. But I’ve very recently gotten past the point of caring about being popular. It’s too much work anyway, trying to live up to the expectations of the entire world.

Two big stories have dominated the media these past two weeks: first, the story of Caitlyn Jenner and second, the story of Josh Duggar. Both have been polarizing, both have caused extreme lashing out both by Christians and at Christians. I’ve watched outrage fly and hatred spew on all sides. So many have taken an “us vs. them” stance, screaming “You are either for us or you’re against us!”. Both individuals have been reduced to extremely oversimplified caricatures, filled out by the projections of millions of people based on their own personal experiences. People who identify with either of these individuals claim to know their every thought and intention by virtue of their assumed kinship, or by virtue of their kinship with those who oppose them.

A trend has emerged. People choose their side and hold up these individuals either as saints or devils, representative of all the good they can dream up or all the evil the world possesses. But then something happens – the caricature begins to fracture. Someone points out an inconsistency in the position that’s been taken, or the sainted individual makes a choice that contradicts the perfection they are meant to encapsulate. Caitlyn, it’s revealed, is making millions off of this whole “coming out”, and suddenly her motives run the risk of not being completely altruistic. Two of Josh Duggars victims speak out in his defence with messages of forgiveness, and those who have been claiming to be the victims voices in all this find themselves having to come up with ways to undermine those whose side they purport to have chosen. 14 year old Josh Duggar self reported his crimes before his victims were even aware of them, and it’s harder to argue that he fits the profile of a pedophile.

By this point of course the opinions have been broadcast so loudly, and lines so clearly drawn that there is no room for doubt, for backing down or changing your mind or softening your position. All that’s left is to double down and redirect the argument through whatever means necessary so that the conclusion can be supported. The conclusion is the guiding force, and the facts will be molded to fit it. The caricatures become even more extreme, and any glimpse of the real humans behind these names are lost completely to the public’s consciousness.

And that’s the real problem. The problem is that in the moment these stories emerged, instead of searching to find these individual’s humanity, people sought to dispense of it in an effort to support the narrative they wanted to develop. This is equally true of those both on the left and on the right. These individuals are not spoken about in most circles as fully fleshed out humans – fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, sisters, daughters, wives, mothers. They are idols or they are scum. They are not allowed to be humans.

Why are we so afraid of their humanity? Perhaps because if we allowed ourselves to see their humanity, we would see in them the imperfect pieces of ourselves – of our husbands and mothers and children. We would relate to them not as things to be judged but as people to be loved, and love is far too complicated to support any simple narrative. Love requires empathy, compassion and forgiveness just as much as it requires boundaries and responsibility and consequence. Love requires an acknowledgement that these individuals who may hold beliefs that we oppose with every fibre of our being also share in the common experiences of human life – bedtime stories with their children, loneliness in the breakdown of their relationships, awe at the splendour of a perfect sunset. It requires the acknowledgement that those things we hate about who they are and what they stand for are merely one part of their person, that their perceived flaws are no more numerous than our own and that nothing they say or do can erase the fact that they are still more like us in their humanity than they are different from us in their failings.

So if you want to discuss the Jenners and the Duggars, discuss what they do with humility and caution, knowing your life is full of choices someone else in the world opposes with the same vehemence you are feeling. Don’t assume you know who the person is or what their motives are, unless you actually have a close relationship with them – and even then realize you cannot read another’s mind. But most importantly of all, root every conversation you have in the reality of a love that requires you to put their humanity centre stage. Whatever your position is on Caitlyn Jenner and Josh Duggar, whatever your feelings about the lives they are leading and the choices they are making, you must always remember to look at them first and foremost as imperfect people, as brothers and sisters, and as precious and loved children of God.