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Stupid Remarks and the Rush to Judgment

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 “book talk” 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.?

It’s a compelling question, and the moment I heard it, I wanted to express my solidarity with the questioner—that I too am horrified by many acts perpetrated in God’s name. What I said was something like “I make no apology for my fellow Christians and the things they’ve done.”

Somehow, in my head, the phrase I make no apology meant I will not even try to justify or rationalize—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 it’s used for saying you’re not sorry about something. Yikes.

It gets better. The talk was being recorded. It’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 hadn’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. That’s an error for at least two reasons:

  1. We have no idea if the person on camera honestly misspoke. Public speaking is a weird phenomenon: you’re focusing on what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, how the audience is reacting, how much time you have left, what you can cut from the speech to make up time… Try to juggle all those thoughts and not make a single verbal mistake.
  2. 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.

Does that mean every speaker should get a free pass? Not hardly. I listened to Mitt Romney’s 47% quote in full context, and it still sounded bad.

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 it’s important to fess up to it. Sometimes “I was misquoted” is a cheap excuse. But sometimes it’s true. Let’s get in the habit of checking it out before rushing to judgment.

Dialogue, ISIS, and the Reading of Evil

Is it enough to condemn evil without trying to understand it?

I’m not sure the answer is obvious. On the one hand, dwelling on the wretchedness of villainy (to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi) can be corrosive to one’s inner life. It’s why we humans often tell one another to “focus on the positive,” or why St. Paul instructs his Philippian friends similarly:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

On the other hand, two things can go wrong if we condemn evil without understanding it. First, we could miss out on the fact that the “evil” isn’t evil at all, but simply another perspective that merits a hearing in dialogue or some other format. Second, in cases when the evil is evil, we could miss out on uncovering the best ways to defeat it.

Throughout his must-read article in this month’s Atlantic, contributing editor Graeme Wood puts the Islamic State phenomenon squarely in the second category. To correct this error, he puts forth a well-researched report on the specific beliefs that drive the caliphate.

If Wood’s analysis is correct, then actual dialogue with the jihadist leaders, even if remotely desirable, is impossible: their interpretation of Islam requires them to forswear the peace and bridge building that dialogue fosters. However, understanding the intellectual foundation of ISIS would greatly enrich our dialogue about ISIS—particularly the dialogue of Western leaders as they seek more intelligent, more effective strategies for bringing the rogue state down.

That is Wood’s thesis, and I agree. It doesn’t make reading about the Islamic State any less stressful or horrifying. A steady diet of such articles would mess with my mind, and probably yours too. Which leads us back to the question: does it make any sense for average citizens, with no power over strategy, to let this stuff into their minds? What do you think?

 

Dialogue and My Facebook Detox

I’m in the fourth day of Facebook detox.

If you read this space regularly, you’ll know that Facebook has inspired a good many dialogues (and articles) for me. Some of my favorite colleagues I know only through Facebook. It’s become one of the world’s great gathering places, so it would be silly for me not to be there and learn what I can.

And yet it’s just too easy to slip away for a moment, take a quick break from work, disrupt whatever I’m doing to check Facebook. It’s easy to respond to x conversation, add a quick comment on y page, maybe post an update or a question of my own, watch that video (it’s only two minutes)….

Before I know it, my concentration’s shot. I don’t know what or how much I’ve accomplished. Each day ends with a vague sense of waste. So I’m off (or nearly off) Facebook, at least for a few days.

This seems to be the way life goes, for many of us at least. We engage, we retreat. We make our mark in the public square, we withdraw to reflect and recharge.

It’s hardly a new idea. Early Christian thinkers spilled a lot of ink reflecting on “the active life” vs. “the contemplative life” and opining which was better. In modern times the general conversation speaks of introversion and extroversion.

For me, the best is a blend of both—or, rather, a flow between the two. I’ve spent much of my life in a more contemplative place. Now, with the book and the articles and the conferences and whatnot, my life has taken an active turn, without leaving the contemplative behind.

This flow, I think, is essential for us as people of dialogue. Individual dialogues are demanding work. They require intense periods of listening, deep reflection, compassion for the other, and great care with language, among other things. We can’t sustain these wonderful efforts forever. We have to process, give our souls a break, let our preconceptions and the input from the dialogue play together.

How do you know when the flow is shifting? This is where I think listening comes in: listening to one’s own heart, to one’s exhaustion levels, to the tenor of the conversation at that moment, to the situation, to the other. If we develop an ear for these things, we can let the shift happen when it comes, respect its timing, and go with it.

Oh, it helps to listen to loved ones too. With the Facebook business, I ignored the shift for quite a while. Fortunately, one passing comment from my wife woke me up to face what was happening.

I’m sure I will be on Facebook again at some point. If I listen to my heart with enough honesty, I’ll even know when that point is. One can only hope.

Have you ever done a Facebook detox? Did it help? How? Feel free to share.

What I’ve Learned from Al Sharpton

My bullshit alarm went off last month. As usual, it forced me to rethink an opinion I’d always just assumed.

The big surprise was who set it off: Al Sharpton.

Here’s what happened. In the wake of the senseless deaths of two NYPD officers, one news item in particular caught my attention: Al Sharpton condemned the shootings.

I have never paid a great deal of attention to Sharpton. What little I had absorbed was overwhelmingly negative: he was an opportunist, a craven showman, an inciter of violence and hatred. So when a conservative friend or relative condemned the reverend, I would simply nod my head and point out that no, not all black people were like Al Sharpton, not all progressives were like Al Sharpton, he was an extreme example.

And when I heard that Sharpton condemned the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, it struck me as remarkable news. I figured someone in the public square would remark on it. But no: many conservative pundits continued their ongoing assault on Sharpton without missing a beat—without even acknowledging his statement.

That’s when my bullshit alarm went off. It posed this question: “Who exactly informed your opinion of Al Sharpton?”

After a bit of thought, I realized that my opinions came largely from in-laws and friends and media types. Specifically, conservative in-laws and friends and media types.

There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on sources like these. But I try hard not to get all my input from one viewpoint, so a bit of investigation was in order to restore the balance. I spent the better part of an afternoon reading about Sharpton: not what opinionators said about him, but what he said and did, going back at least to the 1990s. (For example: Sharpton’s eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral and his account of his role in the Crown Heights unrest.)

To summarize: I could not find a single instance of Al Sharpton’s inciting violence. He is vocal and assertive about racial injustice, but he also takes elements of the African-American community to task (as in the Michael Brown eulogy). He has done some divisive and incendiary things, particularly in his early days (the Tawana Brawley affair comes immediately to mind). Perhaps he is opportunistic. Many of his calls for justice sound similar to what I recall hearing in the 1960s. I’m hardly the first person to notice all this: media outlets like Politico and Newsweek have chronicled Sharpton’s evolution.

As I read, a different image of Sharpton began to form in my mind: a particularly colorful mix of virtues and vices (like most of us), who appears to have evolved over time (like most of us). It is hardly a description of the devil incarnate.

So. What are the lessons here?

  1. People can and do change. We need to give them grace to do so. We owe it to them to see and honor their evolving selves and reshape our opinions of them accordingly. This approach, unfortunately, is in short supply, as anyone who’s attended a family reunion—and was treated like she was still 10—can tell you.
  2. There’s no end to our blind spots: instances in which we’ve semi-consciously glommed onto an opinion without even realizing we haven’t thought it through. Openness and humility can help here: humility keeps us attentive to how much we don’t know, while openness motivates us to hear—even more, to seek out—opinions that differ from our own, no matter how “settled” the issue might be for us.
  3. Assume good intent. This is particularly important for people of faith, since most if not all faith traditions require us to extend welcome and compassion to all. Does that mean we trust blindly? No. The gospel admonition to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) applies here. Skepticism can be healthy. Cynicism born of hostility, not so much.

Have you had to revise an opinion of someone you were absolutely certain about? How did that work for you? Feel free to tell your stories here.

A Brief (and Interfaith) Christmas Meditation

This morning, my email brought me a story in which the author delivered a sefer Torah, the long scroll used in synagogues, to a fledgling Reform community in Israel. The actual hand-off, which took place in an airport, involved some initial consternation:

I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, [the community’s] student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren’t sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn’t have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf, ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, “May it bring good things for the people of Israel!”

Without realizing it, the older woman crossed a divide simply by expressing the devotion she holds in her heart every day.

That story inspired the first sentence in a brief meditation I wrote from my own tradition (Christianity). I shared it on Facebook, and I share it with you here:

People can be wonderful. People can be horrible. The gospel story of Jesus’ birth contains evidence of both. One reason I follow my faith is that it, like many other faith traditions, assures us that wonderful wins. Or will. To all of you who celebrate it, have a blessed Christmas.

To all of you, may the coming year bring more divides crossed, more bridges built, and a deeper experience of the divine, whatever you conceive it to be.

 

What I’ve Learned from the Race/Policing Conversation

Over the past week or two, I’ve had a number of vigorous and civil conversations about police behavior, the use of force, and race in America. Emerging from those conversations are several points that, I think, are underrepresented right now in the public square. So here is what I’ve heard and learned and come to believe:

  1. We need to listen more and listen better. As I wrote in another article, “By listen, I don’t mean waiting impatiently for the other person to stop so I can have my say. I don’t mean listening through the filter of every belief I’ve ever held. I mean listening that is deep, openhearted, and fully attentive, that strives to experience the other person as she is, to accurately hear what she says.”  Read more here.
  2. We need more both/and. Can we deplore the destruction of property in Ferguson and inquire into the dynamics that gave rise to the underlying anger? Can we express concern about police use of excessive force and note the difficult line that officers walk in carrying out their duties? Can we uphold the value of individual responsibility and acknowledge the broader social trends that make assuming responsibility an uphill climb? If not, why not?
  3. We need space to explore without shame. The dynamics behind the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and other places are new to many people (mostly white people). To fully understand any concept new to us, we humans inevitably fumble around, ask clumsy questions, make rookie mistakes, so that eventually we get it and can be effective in addressing it. Exploration is difficult, however, if we fear being labeled immediately as bad or unacceptable just for asking questions. This happened after 9/11 with the label un-American; I hear it happening now with the label racism. Are some people who ask clumsy questions racist? You bet. Do some hold truly good intent despite their klutziness? Indeed they do.
  4. I wonder if, just maybe, we can restart the conversation in a different place. I have heard commentators address their white readers along these lines: “You are blind to the fact that racism is systemic—baked into our system. Just by being white, you benefit from it. That makes you part of the problem.” Wherever this statement is on the accuracy scale, it usually puts white readers on the defensive, which derails the conversation and leaves us even more polarized. What if we addressed white readers this way: “Did you know that racism is systemic—actually baked into our system? Here’s what I mean….” By separating the system from the individual initially, we might be able to spark not defensiveness but curiosity—and, from curiosity, engagement.
  5. There is a world of hurt around race, and it hurts on all sides. I spent part of yesterday listening to the experience of a friend—a teacher who felt threatened by the aggressive behavior of two students and mentioned it to management. In response, because she is white and the students are black, her entire work group was sent to a seminar on unconscious racism. The shaming she felt is palpable in her storytelling. No, I am not saying that white pain is equal to black pain: not even close. What I am saying is that an acknowledgment of pain from everyone, to everyone, might be a first step in the long, arduous process of opening our hearts to one another.

What do you think—not about the incidents themselves, but about the conversation they have sparked in the public square? What does it tell us about the way we do dialogue?

A Look at Ferguson from the Depths of the Heart

Miki Kashtan writes more deeply about the human experience than just about anyone I know. When reading her blog, I have the sense that she has confronted a difficult issue, taken it into her deepest self (an act of courage if there ever was one), and written down the wisdom that emerges in that interface between her heart and the problem.

This week Miki, who is a renowned trainer and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication, has turned her attention to the unfolding story in Ferguson, Missouri—and thereby to deeper issues of race and policing. I cannot do better than to refer you to her article, “Responding to Violence with Love for All.” An excerpt to whet your appetite:

There are times, and this is one of them, where my ongoing choice to stay away from public events and electoral politics no longer stands up to my inner sense of moral integrity. This is a time where I am just too clear that it’s only my privilege that makes it even an option to choose. No, I don’t think that privilege is “bad,” nor do I aim to make it go away, nor believe it’s possible or even always desirable to do so. Rather, I want to consider my privilege as a resource, and to keep asking myself day in and day out how I mobilize my privilege and use it for the benefit of all….

This is the first and deepest commitment of any act of nonviolent resistance: I am willing to endure suffering; I will not dish out suffering to anyone else. As people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King knew, and others like them, known and unknown, our willingness to endure suffering is one of the very ways we can reach the hearts of those who are at present committed to cruelty. Nonviolence implies a willingness to trust that everyone is redeemable, even if we don’t know how to do it. When we expose our own vulnerability, we invite theirs.

Read the rest of Miki’s article here.

When Grey’s Anatomy Trumps the President

If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?

Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.

What gives?

Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.

If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

  1. It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
  2. The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
  3. It’s sweeps monththe regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
  4. It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
  5. Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.

I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.

A Kinda Sorta Dialogue—en Français—at Tim Horton’s

This past weekend I found myself in Drummondville, Quebec, about an hour east of Montreal, waiting to place my breakfast order at a Tim Horton’s. As you might expect, the menu and the chatter of the counter staff were entirely in French.

French is not my first language.

Thanks to C. Douglas Fenner and several other great teachers, I speak French tolerably well. I understand spoken French less well. And when the speakers are Québécois—whose French is different from what I learned in high school, and who speak much faster—I might catch one word out of every 10.

That, of course, makes ordering breakfast an adventure.

I didn’t know how to say oatmeal, but a photo of a steaming bowl shone brightly from the overhead menu, so I plucked the right word from there. My counter person asked me a question, which I initially fumbled, then understood as “for here or to go?” (I heard the words pour ici—“for here”—and that was enough.) So far, so good. I ordered my coffee just fine—large, cream, two sugars—and paid and waited.

Suddenly another employee stepped up and asked me a rapid-fire question. I didn’t catch a single word. So I resorted to my default answer: oui.

It wasn’t completely ignorant. As she spoke, I thought about where we were in the transaction and what she might possibly be asking. It had to be about toppings for the oatmeal. Fortunately, I like just about any and every topping on my oatmeal, so oui was pretty low risk.

And high reward: the oatmeal was delicious.

Why am I telling this story? Because it started me thinking about the value of paying attention to the here and now—more than that, to everything in the here and now (in a word, mindfulness). When you’re awake to everything, you pick up cues that might otherwise elude you. Suddenly two words in a 10-word sentence are enough. A sharp eye on the process, especially a process as familiar as ordering at a coffee shop, enables a response that just might make sense.

We do this all the time in one-on-one interactions: we read facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, etc., and our understanding is much better than if we just heard the words. While this sort of attention is helpful one on one, it can make the difference between success and disaster in group interactions.

I’ll tell you a story or two about groups next time. For now: have you had an experience like my Tim Horton’s saga? How did you navigate it? What did it teach you?

Arnold Abbott and the Surprising Common Ground

Something in my Facebook feed stopped me cold.

Two somethings, actually. Both had to do with Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old who, with two pastors, was arrested for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. Abbott et al. ran afoul of a new city ordinance that addresses what officials see as their homeless problem.

Two posts in my Facebook feed alerted me to the story. The first came from a progressive friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response. The second, hard on the heels of the first, came from a conservative friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response.

Can anyone say common ground?

Dialogue practitioners use the search for common ground as a powerful strategy for individual dialogues. Common ground humanizes us in the eyes of the other, and vice versa. If you and your convictions make my blood boil, and it comes to light that we feel the same way about something—it could be anything—this discovery can take the edge off my hostility. As my hostility abates, my capacity for listening grows.

So allow me a modest suggestion: let’s extend the search for common ground beyond instances of dialogue—and into every interaction in our lives.

Here’s what it might look like in miniature. One of my Facebook friends, a classmate from my alma mater, is both a rock-ribbed conservative and outspoken about it. Her words are often incendiary, and I have nearly unfriended her more than once. (I’m stunned that she hasn’t unfriended me.)

Every now and then, however, she’ll post something in praise of someone in military service, or in praise of God. I find myself agreeing, and I post a comment standing in solidarity with her. It’s common ground expressed.

Of course, this sort of thing may make no difference at all. But let’s say she and I have to resolve a problem. There’s a small chance that she’ll go into the dialogue thinking, “My goodness, Backman is a liberal jerk. But all in all, he’s not that bad. He loves Jesus, etc.” Her heart opens a little to hearing me. And vice versa: I remember the times we’ve connected, and my heart opens a little.

Maybe it makes the difference between failure and success.

What if we did this on a larger scale? What if we laid the ground for common ground with everyone we know on the “other side”? What are the chances we might become more openhearted in our deepest selves?

Have you ever tried this? What happened?