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By the Content of Their Character

Seeing Dr. King's vision is easy. Living it is the hard part.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."- Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963.

Judging people by the content of their character. Powerful concept, that. I think that the majority of people would find agreement in the general concept. In practice, however, the idea is a bit more thorny than would appear.

The trick is to remove oneself from the equation, eliminate the "me" filter. To find the character or another, you have to take your own agenda and preconceived notions and cast them aside. Pay no heed to the labels assigned to a person, and attach no labels of your own to them. Simply look at what a person does.

Dr. King did not want for his kids to be assessed as "black" children. In Dr. King's vision, he would not have seen my offspring as "white" children...his point was to simply see them all as children. When we think of Martin Luther King, we often limit our thinking to matters of race. Character knows no race, this much is true but I don't think Dr. King's vision was that shortsighted. I believe that Dr King would have us remove all the pre-qualifiers to find the true character of others.

Adjectives are words we use to describe nouns. Positive and negative adjectives can be used to great effect when influencing the opinions of others. When the noun is "people", we often use adjectives as labels. Those labels then can become barriers to how willing we are to truly look for the character content: Black, White. Republican, Democrat. Christian, Secular. 

We all do it. You just did,  when you read through those adjectives in the previous paragraph. Shoot, I just did it. Somebody out there read "Christian", rolled their eyes and and thought "Bible Thumper." Somebody else saw "Democrat" and saw "liberal hippie." Sometimes we do it cognitively, but most of the time its subconscious. We don't even realize that we do it.  It's not fair, but it is human nature to seek out those who are similar to us in appearance and values while rejecting those that do not. So we paint those we favor in agreeable tones, while assigning less endearing hues to those that don't match our personal views.

As a society, we are very quick to assign labels that affect how we look at people's actions. True character can be found in what people choose to do. True character cannot be altered no matter how hard others will try to paint over them with an assigned labels designed to do just that.

So how do we honor Dr. King's memory and, more importantly, his vision? We reach across to those not like us in appearance and values. Not to attempt to make one another adhere to our concepts of right vs. wrong so much as to gain understanding of what makes us all tick. Time to stop using third party descriptions as a default filter. What people DO is a much better gauge of character.

The only way we are all going to ever understand each other is to make an honest effort to try to understand each other. The only way I know to do that is to forget about the adjectives and start looking for the verbs.

Ben Cathey January 19, 2012 at 12:18 PM
Nice column. Thanks Jeff!
Jeffrey Allen January 30, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Thanks Ben

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