This September, in response to a rash of teen suicides, columnist Dan Savage created the "It Gets Better Project." The campaign quickly garnered attention from all over. Soon everyone from celebrities to legislators to President Obama was making videos addressing teens who were being bullied because of their sexuality. The idea was to help them understand that bullying doesn't last forever—that they can look forward to adulthood as a time when they can create their own destiny and enjoy the respect of others.

In the weeks since the launch of the project, the following events have taken place.

  • Maura Kelly, a blogger for Marie Claire magazine, wrote in a post titled "Should 'Fatties' Get a Room? (Even on TV?)," "So anyway, yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room—just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine [sic] addict slumping in a chair."
  • On ABC's The View, panelist Joy Behar remarked after viewing Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle's ad on immigration, "She's going to hell, this b---h." Angle later sent Behar flowers and a note jokingly thanking her for helping Angle's campaign raise more money. Behar's response: "I'd like to point out those flowers were picked by illegal immigrants. And they aren't voting for you, b---h."
  • Tim Profitt, a volunteer for Kentucky Congressional candidate Rand Paul, deliberately stepped on the head of protester Lauren Valle at a campaign rally.
  • In an article purporting to promote the ideals of maturity and dignity, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan called former Governor Sarah Palin a "nincompoop" for pointing out (correctly) that Ronald Reagan had once been an actor.
  • Gossip site Gawker ran an anonymous story by a man who claimed to have had a "platonic" one-night stand with Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, sharing deeply personal details intended to humiliate her.

None of these events has any direct ties to the It Gets Better Project (except perhaps the last one, as Dan Savage had made some blatant sexual suggestions of his own about O'Donnell in the same column in which he originally proposed the project). But young people watching all this might be wondering if there's really any truth to the message that once you're grown up, you'll automatically be treated more civilly.

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As Elizabeth Scalia wrote in a First Things column about the suicides, "Children and young people are not stupid. If they encounter a teacher, or a preacher, talking love and acceptance in one breath and then bad-mouthing the impolitic 'other' of their own prejudices (and they do) they will reject the talk, and find their own 'other' to speak against, jeer at, and hate."

In fact, this seems to be the usual state of a culture that's hyper-politically correct on the one hand and delights in flinging insults with the other. Only in such a culture, for instance, could we have a "Rally to Restore Sanity" that featured a performer who had called for the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie. Truly, as Scalia puts it, "there is a disconnect, somewhere, between theory and practice" when it comes to our notions of tolerance and respect.

Could it be that, as a post-Christian society, we no longer have any clear notion of why we should be considerate of other people? The whole idea of political correctness was formulated as a sort of secular version of "Love your neighbor as yourself," and yet the backlash it created seems to have made things worse than ever. How often have you heard someone justify an unkind remark by saying, "I'm sick of being politically correct"?

We often think and act as if the opposite of political correctness were authenticity—and of course, when it's framed that way, the latter is going to appear more important than the former. When we've been brought up in what Scalia calls an atmosphere of "everyone is specialness," believing that the world revolves around us and our opinions, then we naturally start to believe we have a right, maybe even a duty, to let whatever is in our heads come out of our mouths—even if someone gets hurt.

And people do get hurt. Badly hurt. As popular blogger Cleolinda wrote in response to Maura Kelly's article on "fatties," "Telling me that people like me gross you out makes me afraid to leave the house and do anything about it. It makes me wonder why I should even bother to try, if there are people like you out there in the world. It makes me want to curl up and die."

That's what we're forgetting when we start flaunting our authenticity. We're forgetting that it's not all about us.

How do we find the elusive balance between honesty and kindness? I think it's going to require that we ditch the postmodern virtue of political correctness and rediscover what C. S. Lewis called "the Christian virtue" of courtesy. In Mere Christianity, Lewis named this virtue as one of the hallmarks of a "fully Christian society"; in The Four Loves, he identified its "root principle" as the idea "that no one give any kind of preference to himself."

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Christian courtesy is rooted and grounded in the idea that every person—however much we may dislike him or her—is made in the image of God and precious in his sight. It is an ideal that we may struggle to live up to, but the struggle makes us better people; it reminds us to show kindness when every impulse and instinct is urging us to do the opposite. It requires of us something deeper than a rally or a video, something more than the obligatory apology that follows most celebrity catfights. It's a lifestyle that has to be consciously lived every day.

In a post-Christian culture, is there any chance of regaining the lost virtue of courtesy? As Christians, we can only do our best to show the world what it looks like, and pray that others might be attracted to it. For only courtesy can bridge the gap between respect for others and respect for ourselves, by reminding us that each of us was made worthy of respect by a loving God.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog.

Related Elsewhere:

See also "Blog Comments and Christian Courtesy," by Lavonne Neff, in our Her.meneutics blog.