Characters Unite is the USA Network’s
“award-winning public service program, [and] was created to address the social injustices and cultural divides still prevalent in our society. Inspired by USA Network’s iconic “Characters Welcome” brand and with the support of leading national nonprofit organizations, the ongoing campaign is dedicated to supporting activities and messaging that combat prejudice and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance…”
This annual campaign features actors, athletes, and activists pleading passionately to viewers to stand up against bullying, racism, homophobia, ableism (discrimination against the disabled), violence, workplace discrimination, religious intolerance, sexism, hate, and bigotry. The campaign is driven by the Characters Unite Awards show, the storytelling tour, and a steady flow of public service announcements. Its partners include the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Anti-Defamation League, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, La Raza, the National Education Association, the General Board of the United Methodist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more.
While watching the documentaries and impassioned speeches, it is almost impossible not to be swept up into the promise. Just imagine – a world where everyone accepts everyone. No one is mistreated. No one is discriminated against. No one lives in fear or shame. We are all free to pursue our dreams to the fullest. It is a compelling picture.
Characters Unite accomplishes some good ends. Any child helped through bullying, any minority spared the sting of racism, and any homosexual delivered from abuse is good. Yet when the PSAs come to an end, the awards have been handed out, and the tour packs up and heads home, will there be any lasting change? Call me cynical, a pessimist, or a hater, but I’m not so sure. Let me point out some potential problems.
First, this sort of initiative is just the kind of thing our culture loves – lofty goals with little commitment. We love texting donations into celebrity telethons from our armchair and hauling off clothes we never wear to thrift stores. In Characters Unite, almost nothing is asked of the viewer aside from looking down on those who fit into the undefined categories of intolerant, bigot, sexist, bully, etc. We don’t have to change anything about our lives or ourselves, we simply have to demand others change. Because I don’t have to reckon with my own apathy, sins and character, any change will be superficial.
Second, Characters Unite has no foundational truth. How do you determine if someone is being sexist, homophobic, bigoted, or discriminatory? Because these concepts are not defined the viewer is free to label as he or she pleases. Discrimination occurs when elementary schools refuse to hire sex offenders; should we stand against that? If I take a stand against homophobia does that mean I become intolerant of religions that support traditional marriage? Is a 16 year old girl prejudiced if using the bathroom with a transgendered boy makes her uncomfortable? If –as one PSA declares – we should all be free to love whoever we want, does that include a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy? Or if – as another PSA declares – everyone should be free to believe what they want, does that include sacrificing one’s child to the gods? Because Characters Unite lacks any transcendent truth, it cannot define its own terms or judge conflicting claims.
Third, Characters Unite promotes self-righteousness. Each PSA makes it clear that everyone on the screen and watching the screen are righteous – tolerant, fair, loving, accepting, and peaceful. Attractive young people complain about the hate and bigotry of others declaring, “How do people hate so much they can hurt someone, or insult someone’s beliefs, or tell someone what they can do, or who they should love?” The problem is out there, with other people, not with us. The world is divided into the moral – the tolerant, non-judgmental, and accepting – and the immoral – the intolerant, judgmental, and discriminating. Thus, the “righteous” are free to stand against, look down on, dislike, hate, and discriminate against the “unrighteous.” All a good Pharisee needs now is a stone to throw at those who violate society’s new morals.
Could there be a less divisive way to unite us and deal with the hurt and suffering we cause? It begins not with indignation on our couches but a willingness to get off the couch and love other people. Jesus said in Matthew 22:39, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That means paying the bills of the disabled, mentoring the victim of a bully, or extending friendship to the hated. But Jesus also said in Matthew 5:44, “… I say to you, love your enemies…” That means befriending the intolerant, serving the bigot, and understanding the potentially painful past that created a bully.
It begins not with everyone deciding for themselves what is tolerant and intolerant, accepting and judgmental, right and wrong, but with transcendent truth. Isaiah 59:14 says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares.” With no fixed source of truth we cannot agree on what is good or bad. So we seek justice based on our own fickle feelings and changing culture. One group grabs justice for itself at the expense of another. We need truth greater than feelings to give us direction and justice.
It begins not by putting ourselves on a moral pedestal and demanding everyone else shape up, but by realizing the depths of our own sin. Jesus said in Matthew 7:5, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Only when we confront our own hatred, prejudice, pride, envy, jealousy, intolerance, and bigotry will there be change. We will be able to extend mercy and grace to others instead of extending our own accusatory judgments.
I hope Characters Unite makes a positive difference in our increasingly divided and hostile world. But true change will only come when we work to love both the offended and the offender, are guided by truth, and confront the sin in our own hearts. Only then will we be able to join hands and create a better world.
Disclaimer: My favorite part of Characters Unite is the push for adoption and foster child care. This does demand more of the viewer and is a very important, but unfortunately, somewhat small part of Characters Unite. Also, this article is based on the Public Service Announcements on the USA Network and the corresponding website, not on the awards show or storytelling tour – in other words, based on the part that will effect the most people.
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