Harold Camping, Endtime, and Confucius: A Call for Civility

When I was a young man growing up in the provincial hinterlands of suburban new jersey, I afforded myself every possible opportunity to acquire at least a patina of culture by escaping to New York City, which was a twenty-minute bus ride from my home. Upon arrival, I would exit the Port Authority Building and enter the teeming street, and almost invariably I would be confronted by someone, usually an old, rather disheveled man, carrying a sign or wearing a sandwich board which read: “Repent, The End Is Near.” I quickly learned never to make eye contact with or speak to such people, since to do so risked being the recipient of a long, apocalyptic rant. However, I also soon discovered that the citizens of Manhattan, not exactly famous for either conversational restraint or instinctive courtesy, were never rude to these misfortunate individuals. Rather, they recognized them for what they were – intellectually handicapped human beings – and steadfastly ignored them. And this brings me to the matter of Harold Camping.

Mr. Camping is, of course, an American Christian broadcaster who acquired considerable notoriety when he recently predicted that the world would end on 21 May 2011. When end times failed to transpire, Camping did what many of his numerologically obsessed predecessors have done: He recalculated the scriptural “clues” and then changed the date of his doomsday forecast to 21 October 2011. And yet here I am, typing this two full days after the predicted apocalypse, because, as every sensible person in the world already knew, nothing was going to happen. I will neither belabor the obvious point that all such prognostications are inherently absurd nor chide believers who credit Camping with having prophetic powers. Americans have the Constitutional right to believe whatever they want. Rather, my complaint in this posting is directed against two groups equally guilty of unpardonable displays of bad manners: the on-line popular press (and is there really any other kind in the United States these days?) and the people who comment on the articles published therein.

In case you missed the journalistic circus, Harold Camping was repeatedly featured in any number of postings, most of which fully chronicled his embarrassingly outlandish notions about reality, as if such things were worth reporting or could be considered newsworthy by any reasonably intelligent and informed person. Thankfully, our civilization has reached the point where it is no longer permissible to publicly ridicule people with physical, emotional, or mental handicaps. However, in the various expressions of on-line media, this courtesy is sometimes not extended to those with an obvious intellectual handicap. While many of the articles about Harold Camping were at least implicitly condescending – or worse – the majority of the comments posted by readers in response to them were unconscionably rude. In short, while it is permissible to elaborate the fallacies in Mr. Camping’s thinking in polite, scholarly, and impersonal ways, it is not acceptable either to exploit his character in order to garner an audience or to make degrading comments about him in order to make oneself feel superior.

Twenty-six centuries ago, Confucius said, “Good manners are the root of civilization,” and the root of “civilization” is “civil.” Argue against Harold Camping’s views if you wish, but do not dismiss them – or him – contemptuously. When confronted by someone so lost in delusion that he is immune to the appeals of reason and good sense, the proper course of action is to emulate the strategy of the polite Manhattanites of my youth: Ignore him.

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