A Word of Caution on Assigning Blame

Last week we learned about an unspeakably heartbreaking tragedy. Tuesday night reports began circulating that Ergun Caner’s 15 year old son, Braxton, was dead as a result of suicide. Countless people expressed sympathy and prayers over social media. Even though we know prayer is the best thing we can do when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs, it feels woefully inadequate. I don’t know anyone in the Caner family personally, but I felt physically sick for the night and next day, and still do if I let my mind linger over the sadness brought by this tragic loss for the Caner family and Braxton’s friends.

The reason I write today is because of the layers of public controversy piled on top a situation that is already highly emotional charged (for the record, heightened emotions are perfectly appropriate right now). About a month ago, a vocal pastor named J. D. Hall, criticized photos and comments Braxton had posted to his Twitter feed. Let me try and give a brief summary and background.

J. D. Hall has had an ongoing, if pretty one-sided, public feud with Ergun Caner. Caner rarely-to-never responds to Hall and his cohorts, but Hall and others regularly blog, tweet, and podcast about Caner’s past. Out of sensitivity to Caner and his family during this time, getting into the details about what the criticisms are about is neither necessary nor appropriate. They’re well documented online for anyone who wants to find out. And I’ll say that I have been critical of Caner in the past as well, though I’d like to think my criticism has been more measured, reasonable, occasional, and stayed away from making things personal.

So Hall has been a frequent and strong critic of Caner, but Caner refuses to respond, and I think that makes Hall and his followers more annoyed and angry. Hall then pushes harder and the attacks become more and more petty and personal as time goes on. I don't think Ergun Caner could brush his teeth in a way that J. D. Hall wouldn't criticize. There’s a lot more to the backstory, but I just don’t have time to cover it and that’s not my purpose today. I hope that will suffice as context for Hall’s comments about and to Braxton Caner on Twitter.

The Twitter Exchange
July 2 was the day Hall criticized Braxton’s social media activity. Hall tagged Braxton’s Twitter account in his comments, ensuring that Braxton himself, not just Ergun, would be notified and see the tweets. Braxton responded and there was an exchange of four or five responses by each. Hall’s actions and comments in this exchange are almost breathtakingly shocking, concluding with him telling Braxton to “email me” if Braxton “ever want[s] to speak or seek truth about your dad.”

His comments were quickly condemned by a number of people online.
Here's one example. In fact, that tweet is what alerted me to the exchange. Even though, as I’ve said before, I’ve been a critic of Caner in the past, I recognized Hall’s actions were way out of line. I’ve also previously and publicly criticized Hall (here and here for examples). I believe that public statements and actions are rightfully publicly condemned so I also criticized Hall for his actions. Then I criticized even further when it became clear that he was responding by doubling down on his actions, despite a number of people publicly and some privately telling him he needed to apologize and repent.

After a couple days, Hall did finally admit, in a revision to a blog post about the situation, that it was poor judgment to include Braxton in his crusade against Ergun. (Note: that original post and the apology revision have since been taken down at Hall’s blog. I’m assuming his reasoning for taking it down was an attempt to be sensitive to the Caner family since the original part of the post contained material critical of Braxton.) Considering Hall’s earlier attempts to justify his actions and the laughable efforts at some of his followers to argue there was nothing wrong with J. D.’s actions, his apology was a welcome step, though nothing could make up for the complete lack of discernment Hall showed in the first place.

I want to make clear that I am not excusing or minimizing the fact that J. D. Hall's actions were immature and reprehensible. In fact, I was one of those who called him out publicly at the time of the event. I was vocal enough in my criticism that Hall blocked me on Twitter.

Tragedy and Blame
I’ll admit that when I heard about Braxton’s death, the second thought, after sympathy for his family, was the Twitter exchange that occurred a little less than a month earlier. Could that have been a cause or contributing factor in this horrible situation? And if so, how much might it have affected the young man? Now, to be fair, I didn’t know anything about Braxton—at all—except for this online exchange a month before. Where else could my mind have gone? And I think a lot of people in my situation (online observer) likely had those same kinds of questions for the same reason.

In the days since the news spread, I’ve seen people condemn Hall as if he is the sole and lone cause of the young man’s tragic decision. I've seen long blog posts documenting every word written and spoken by Hall about the situation, seeming to tie his actions in a causal sense to Braxton's death.

Then, on the other side, I’ve also seen defenders of Hall ask things like, “are you saying J. D. is to blame?” insinuating that there’s no blame whatsoever to be assigned to Hall—as if to assert that his actions were a contributing factor defies logic and is nothing more than an emotional reaction.

Neither reaction is right nor helpful to anyone. One thing we know is that we don’t know—especially those of us viewing this situation from a distance. It seems virtually impossible that this one event, 27 days before his death, could have single-handedly caused something so tragic. On the other hand, I don't believe it had no effect on Braxton. For a young man, one who could have been struggling in other areas of life, to be the victim of what he considered an attack on himself and his family very well could have weighed more heavily on him than it would have on many of us. It may have weighed heavily on him, or he may have brushed it off quickly and thought no more of it days or weeks later. Once again, those of us observing from a distance just don't know.

Maybe Braxton’s family and closest friends have some insight into what was going on in his life and mind. Maybe they have reason to believe Hall’s actions had a great impact or relatively no impact on him. If that’s something they ever want to talk about publicly, I’m willing to listen carefully and learn. From what I know of those who have dealt with suicide closely, often those closest to the deceased can only speculate—so it may be that no one ever knows how much, if any, blame deserves to be laid at the feet of J. D. Hall.

It’s completely reasonable to posit Hall’s comments could have been one more cloud on an already dreary day for this young man. In this scenario, Hall’s actions would be properly considered a contributing factor, though I think it would be nearly impossible to determine how great of a factor. It's also completely reasonable to imagine that Braxton laughed off Hall's actions as "some weird guy from Montana who stalks my dad tried to bother me on Twitter." Braxton did poke back at Hall as being "creepy" and strangely obsessed. The fact is that we don't know. We don't know if Hall's actions were a considerable factor, a minor factor, or no factor at all.

The fact that we don’t know should make all of us—Hall’s critics, his defenders, and the rest of us—very cautious about the way we speak, either accusing or defending. The one thing we do know is that Braxton’s death is a terrible tragedy and we ought to continue praying for all those personally affected by his death. As for the rest of it, let us be slow to speak and ready to listen.

Note on comments: Due to the nature of this topic, I've temporarily changed the comments policy site-wide to require moderator approval before any comment appears. I welcome productive conversation, but am afraid of the direction comments could go on this subject. The line between what's allowed and what's not will be completely subjective and up to my judgment. Personal attacks directed toward anyone will be off limits. Feel free to contact me on Twitter as well. I may selectively reply to concerns there.

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