We are embarking on the season of character assassination. In the remaining weeks of the campaign, we will see the two candidates try to impugn each other’s character. They understand that voters rely on perceptions of character when marking their ballots. As they go about trying to manipulate our perceptions, we should keep a few things in mind.

First, they will try to whip up our emotions in order to muffle the voice of reason that speaks within each of us. But reason is exactly what we need as we go about assessing someone’s character.

Second, none of us wish to be defined by our worst moments, but instead understand that character is measured on balance. It is a trend, not a particular event. None of us possess our character strengths to perfection. While we may be of upstanding character, we all have our moments when our judgment faltered. The fact that each of has lied in the course of our lives does not make us all liars. The campaigns, however, will dig into each other’s histories and spotlight negative incidents that push emotional buttons. If we as a populace don’t allow ourselves to fall for these manipulative tactics, we may, over time, find that politicians become less manipulative.

It is up to us to clean up politics. Politicians fight dirty because we condone it and even demand it. They believe we will punish them if they take the high road and compete on merits. We expect our candidates to prove their meddle by pushing them into the fighting ring to watch them pummel each other, no holds barred. We need to ignore the obsessive media coverage of the upcoming character bloodbath.

And when defining character, let’s move beyond simplistic notions of “good” and “bad” to a more dimensional understanding that character occurs in degrees and takes many forms—wisdom, humanity, justice, temperance, courage, and transcendence. As we judge the candidates’ character strengths, let’s apply the Golden Rule and assess them in the same way as we would want others to assess our own character. If we elevate the conversation on character, the media and candidates will follow.

To discover your character strengths, visit the VIA Institute's website and complete the free VIA survey: www.viame.org

About the Author

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal Mayerson, Ph.D., is the founder and Chairman of the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character.

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