A few days ago I said something stupid, possibly even offensive, and it got me thinking about a disturbing bandwagon that most of us, from time to time, jump on and ride.
On Tuesday I had the privilege of speaking about my book at the behest of the Friends of the Albany Public Library. From what I could tell, the â€œbook talkâ€ was well received. During the Q&A, someone raised an issue that I hear a lot: how can you look to the Christian faith for insights on dialogue when the history of Christendom is littered with war, oppression, complicity in genocide, etc.?
Itâ€™s a compelling question, and the moment I heard it, I wanted to express my solidarity with the questionerâ€”that I too am horrified by many acts perpetrated in Godâ€™s name. What I said was something like â€œI make no apology for my fellow Christians and the things theyâ€™ve done.â€
Somehow, in my head, the phrase I make no apology meant I will not even try to justify or rationalizeâ€”in other words, the acts were horrible and I admit it. Later, back at home, I searched some online dictionaries for the phrase and found that itâ€™s used for saying youâ€™re not sorry about something. Yikes.
It gets better. The talk was being recorded. Itâ€™s slated to play on public access TV all week.
In the grand scheme of things, this is probably no big deal. Even the event organizers said so (they hadnâ€™t noticed). But now imagine that someone wants to ruin me. He could conceivably edit that little clip, send it to any media who care, and post it on Facebook. I would look like an idiot, or worse.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
We do this all the time with our celebrities, our elected officials, and others in the public eye. They get their words tangled, it comes out badly, people catch it on their smartphones, it goes viral, and the outrage begins.
In that outrage, for some reason, we make a critical error: we assume that the clip in front of us represents the entire picture of what happened, context included. Thatâ€™s an error for at least two reasons:
- We have no idea if the person on camera honestly misspoke. Public speaking is a weird phenomenon: youâ€™re focusing on what youâ€™re saying, how youâ€™re saying it, how the audience is reacting, how much time you have left, what you can cut from the speech to make up timeâ€¦ Try to juggle all those thoughts and not make a single verbal mistake.
- We have no idea what the person said before or after the offending clip. It may have changed the meaning substantially. We may not even know the setting for the quote, or the intended audience, or other key contextual details.
The problem here is not so much judgment as it is the rush to judgment. We owe it to ourselves, to the offending speaker, and to the spirit of dialogue to inquire carefully into the context before we decide what the quote says, if anything, about the person behind it.
We all screw up. Stupid things fall out of our mouths. Sometimes they do in fact reveal our venality or sin or prejudice, and itâ€™s important to fess up to it. Sometimes â€œI was misquotedâ€ is a cheap excuse. But sometimes itâ€™s true. Letâ€™s get in the habit of checking it out before rushing to judgment.