Today’s headline in the Daily Telegraph informs us that Keith Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland has resigned because of allegations by four men of “inappropriate behavior” from as far back as 1980. The problem with these allegations is that they are so vague, and yet this new term of universal damnation: “inappropriate behavior” seems to stick.

“Inappropriate behavior”?? What on earth does it mean? Who defines what “inappropriate behavior” is? The vagueness of the term combined with it’s seeming harmlessness is particularly nasty. It’s like being choked to death on perfume fumes. On purpose. It’s like one of those smiles nice ladies dish out when they’ve got their knives out.

If I hear this in the confessional I correct it. Let’s say a penitent says, “I did something inappropriate with my girlfriend.” I stop them. “Hang on there. I’m afraid you need to be more specific, “Inappropriate behavior for one person might mean rape, murder and pillage, while ‘inappropriate behavior’ for another might mean ‘we held hands in a movie’.”

Vague accusations are poisonous–especially if they were from a long time ago and there is no evidence to support them. People now make accusations against others–using highly loaded, but vague language, and when you stop and try to clarify what they mean they get rather indignant.

Here are a few others from my recent experience:

Work colleague complaining about a boss: “He yelled at me!”

“What you mean he cursed and swore and shouted and maybe threw stuff?”

“Well, no, he didn’t throw stuff.”

“Did he curse and swear and call you names. Really lose his temper?”

“Well not exactly.”

“Did he raise his voice.”

“He told me off.”

“For what?”

“Being late.”

“Were you late?”

“Yes, but I had a good reason.”

“So what you mean is that your boss spoke to you firmly about you not being on time.”

“I guess so.”

Here’s another one:

High school  student: “My parents are abusive towards me.”

“That’s terrible. You mean they hit you, burn you with cigarettes, lock you in the closet–or does your Dad rape you or your mother torture you in the basement?”

“Well, no.”

“So they just hit you sometimes?”

“No they never hit me!”

“Do they scream and yell and curse?

“They get mad at me when I’m out late or don’t clean my room.”

“So sometimes your Mom and Dad lose their cool and yell at you to clean up your room?”

“Uh huh.”

Here’s a third:

“I don’t feel safe living with my husband! I need to see a lawyer.”

“But Dave seems like a really gentle person. Do you mean he threatens you with knives and comes home drunk and kicks you down the stairs and threatens to strangle you?”

“It’s the way he looks at me…”

“I see.”

Try another one:

Middle aged affluent housewife: “It’s very sad. I’ve learned that my husband is having an affair.”

“I’m so sorry. You mean he’s been sleeping with another woman?”

“It’s an emotional affair.”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“He’s been corresponding with an old high school sweetheart on Facebook.”

“So you’ve been spying on your husband’s Facebook, and from what I’ve heard you’ve been telling everyone that he’s had an affair, and now his reputation has been destroyed. Who’s at fault here?”

“He is!! He’s been having an affair!”

You see what I mean–with today’s social media level of gossip, and with vague accusations a person’s life can be destroyed in an instant. If the accused protests his or her innocence they are assumed guilty. If they resign and ride off into the sunset they are assumed guilty. This is like the old trial by ordeal. Throw them in the river. If they float they’re guilty of witchcraft and will be executed. If they sink they’re innocent.

It would be nice to think that nobody out there is nasty enough to plan to destroy another person’s career and reputation–getting the person fired and making him an outcast, but in my experience exactly those kind of people are out there, and everybody these days had better watch their back.

To end on a somewhat lighter note, in discussing this with Mrs Longenecker this morning she observed, “Geesh! Who isn’t guilty of “inappropriate behavior” of some kind from thirty years ago?