Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Media’ Category

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

The Media and Other Groups That May or May Not Exist

Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.

Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”

With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.

The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”

The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.

That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.

So why haven’t we learned it with the media?

When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?

The term mainstream media is no better. Does FOX News qualify? CBS? CNN? What about The PBS NewsHour, with its balanced in-depth reporting? How about Al Jazeera?

You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.

Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.

Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.

Rx for Your Trump Hangover

Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help. 

Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.

Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”

Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.

First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.

If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.

In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.

What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:

  • Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
  • News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
  • News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
  • Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.

What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.

If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.

A Time for Dialogue, a Time to Shut Up

You may find the title of this post somewhat odd, especially for a blog about dialogue. But the aftermath of the U.S. election has brought up some things for me, and they have to do with silence.

Silence looms large for me. For years I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer, in which we sit silently before God, opening our hearts wide to the susurrations of the Spirit. This practice has changed my life in all kinds of difficult and wonderful ways.

Not surprisingly, then, silence has been my go-to place since November 9, when the wreckage of this savage, unending campaign became all too apparent.* I was not ready to take up the facile calls for “healing” and “reconciliation” that pop up at the end of every campaign. To me, this earth-shaking event required serious reflection. So I opted for a season of silence and introspection—or, as I wrote on Facebook, “just sitting before God with the damage we have wrought.”

One side effect of silence is that you start to notice things. In the past week, two things have come to mind.

For one, I’ve been dumbstruck by how, as a collective culture, we never shut up. Not ever. Right on the heels of the election came a torrent of words: angry rejoinders, petitions, redoubled commitments to causes, new strategies for dialogue as a response to the election, and yes, the usual calls for unity. All of them facilitated by the relentless 24/7ness of social media.

None of these are bad things in themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re the very stuff of our life together, and certainly of a robust democracy. But in that maelstrom, the value of silence easily gets lost.

So does the value of the other thing that’s come to mind: simply living with the “negative” for a while. Many commentators would like to speed past the rage, fear, and dread to get to new plans and initiatives and countermeasures for a brighter future. Again, Lord knows, we need plans and initiatives and countermeasures. At some point.

But when we sit with the “negative,” I think, we tap into a deeper place from which our actions became more heartfelt, more authentic, and maybe more fruitful.

For example: In my reflections over the past eight days, my horror has moved to lamentation—which connects me deeply to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Large swaths of their writings are consumed with bewailing the utter ruin of their beloved Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E. Some of the psalms written in this period paint a terrifying picture of loss, despair, and rage.

We postmoderns don’t like this sort of thing. We want to get right to the good stuff. But the prophets teach us that dwelling with suffering connects us deeply to life as it is, and to others who suffer (which is all of us). When billions of our human compadres suffer daily, don’t we do well to get (as the prophet Isaiah writes) “acquainted with grief”? What deep wells of compassion and empathy for others might be tapped when we live with suffering ourselves?

Maybe this difficult silence is only for me. Maybe we really need millions of hands on deck, right now, to start changing things for the better, fend off the tide of racism, etc. But maybe we need some of this silence too. I know I do. What about you?

*Full disclosure: I have been truly interested in seeking dialogue with Trump supporters, and I still am: their sense of feeling left behind, to name one thing, has been massively underheard over the past 20 years. At the same time, I see the election of Mr. Trump as a travesty, and since understanding that view is essential to understanding this post, I’m admitting it here.

Care Like a Citizen, Think Like a Journalist (Part 1)

Political lies used to imply that there was a truth…. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They are content with what Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, calls “truthiness”: ideas which “feel right” or “should be true.”   

—“The Post-Truth World: Yes, I’d Lie to You,” The Economist, September 10, 2016, p. 18 (emphasis mine)

 

My social medium of choice, Facebook, has been a disturbing place of late—even more than usual. A particular meme formula is appearing more frequently as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election. It goes like this:

  • Photo of something outrageous (especially if it casts the candidate you don’t like in a negative light)
  • Headline so outlandish it’s guaranteed to get attention
  • Name of the source

People share these things in a blink. They’re so juicy that you can barely resist clicking through. If you stop to read the source line, though, you might detect a fly in the ointment: it usually reads something like (and these examples are made up) downwithfilthycapitalists.org or freedomfrommuslims.edu. Many of these sources excel in making up news, distorting it to their own ends, or at least disseminating stories without any regard for their truth value.

In the post-truth culture described by The Economist, where we don’t care about the facts, that makes perfect sense. But it presents a massive problem: there is no way—no way whatever—that we can run a society on that basis.

So we need to care like citizens and think like journalists.

The caring-like-citizens part is fairly straightforward. We realize that without a consensus on the facts behind an issue—or at least the orientation to care about the facts—we cannot begin to dialogue about the wicked societal problems that are far too big for one person, or one interest group, to overcome. Caring about an issue and the truth associated with it, then, becomes an act of good citizenship.

Now, thinking like journalists. Good journalists take nothing for granted. They check and double-check their sources—on everything. As the old saw goes, “If your mother says she loves you, verify it.”

Time was when good journalists, and the reputable media that employed them, were plentiful enough to ferret out truth from nonsense for us in many cases. That’s not as true anymore, thanks to budget cuts, failing newspapers, etc. So now we have to be our own journalists, or at least our own fact checkers.

How? There are at least three ways we can do it, and I’ll describe them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with one thought: when I say “we need to care like citizens and think like journalists,” I mean everyone. Me. You. Your neighbor down the street. We need all hands on deck to work through our thorniest problems, which means that collectively we must put the post-truth trend behind us. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Donald vs. Facts: Undocumented Mexican Criminals

Last week we started evaluating Donald Trump’s stated positions in light of facts and sober analysis (at least the best I could find). As it turns out, his immigration policy is way too big for one post, so for the time being, let’s look at one of its cornerstones: building a wall on the Mexican border—in part to stop all those dangerous Mexican criminals from entering the U.S.

(Warning: there is math involved, and math is not my strong suit. If it’s yours, and you spot a flaw in my calculations below, please speak up.)

Trump’s statement claims that “for many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country.” He supports his claim with this statement:

In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that there were a shocking 3 million arrests attached to the incarcerated alien population, including tens of thousands of violent beatings, rapes and murders.

The Math

For starters, the figure is wrong. The GAO study estimates 1.7 million arrests for 2.9 million offenses (apparently you can be arrested for multiple offenses at the same time, a fact I have no intention of verifying firsthand). It also attributes these offenses to 249,000 alleged offenders—or, as the GAO calls them, “criminal aliens”—for an average of about 7 arrests per offender.

Sounds like a bad lot, and it probably is. But wait. The “incarcerated alien population” doesn’t include just Mexicans. Neither does it say anything about the behavior of undocumented Mexican immigrants in general. We need more “facts and sober analysis.”

As it turns out, data on Mexican criminal aliens are hard to come by, but we can make some educated guesses. Start by assuming, just for the moment, that all 249,000 alleged offenders in the above paragraph are undocumented Mexicans. The Pew Research Center estimates that 6.2 million undocumented Mexicans lived in the U.S. during 2011. That would put the number of all “criminal aliens” at 4% of all undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. If Mexicans make up half of all undocumented immigrants, and we apply that to our percentage, we’re down to 2%.

By comparison the total number of U.S. residents arrested in 2011, according to the FBI, was about 9.5 million—or 1% of the U.S. population. Not exactly a significant difference.

The Lessons We Might Draw from This

Everyone would agree that keeping criminals from other countries out of the U.S. is a good thing. But in terms of crime, at least, Trump’s solution sounds like massive overkill.

More troubling is this: Trump hangs essentially his whole case on this statistic—and it clearly doesn’t say what he says it does. Worse, the fallacy of his “shocking 3 million” claim, together with his wild profusion of other claims, lend weight to the charge that Trump just makes it up as he goes along, pulling statistics out of the air, without heed for accuracy.

Yes, I know. Candidates have used isolated statistics to prove dubious points since…well, probably since there have been candidates and statistics. But Trump has raised this game to another level, apparently citing random statistics as support for extreme, even dangerous, positions. That means he deserves special scrutiny.

Put another way, we have to find out to what extent the emperor has no clothes. Do all his positions rest on erroneous or obsolete facts? We’ll see.

Donald vs. Facts: China

Today we bring you a public service courtesy of The Dialogue Venture.

The most disturbing aspect of the U.S. presidential campaign, for me, is how unhinged from reality it has become. Truth and nuance are casualties of most campaigns, but this year I see a widespread assumption that opinions matter and truth does not. The obligation to back up one’s rhetoric with facts and sober analysis is gone.

When things get unhinged, you fix the hinge. So let’s try.

For starters, I strolled over to the website of the man most blamed for unhinging the campaign, one Donald J. Trump—specifically, to his Positions page. The first thing that struck me was the number of issues on which he’s articulated positions here: five. Just five. All of them are issues worth exploring: immigration, the Second Amendment, others. But the gaps are, well, huge: nothing on the economy in general, foreign policy, race….

Putting that aside, I dove into his China policy. As a cornerstone of that policy, he promises that “on day one of the Trump administration the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China as a currency manipulator” (underlining in the original). This action, says the policy statement, will “force China to the negotiating table and open the door to a fair—and far better—trading relationship.”

How much of that makes sense? Let’s look at some facts and sober analysis to find out.

I turned to such sources as Foreign Policy, Econ Focus (published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond), and The Washington Post, mainly. Here’s what I found out:

  • We’ve done this before, and it didn’t work. The U.S. Treasury slapped China (as well as Japan and Taiwan) with the currency manipulator tag in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Foreign Policy’s Joshua A. Keating reported, all three shaped up: they “made ’substantial reforms to their foreign exchange regimes’ after the negotiations, and were removed from the list after their ‘currencies appreciated and external trade balances declined significantly.’ However, the U.S. trade deficit with China…has increased every year since 1988. Evidently, the labeling in the early 1990s didn’t do the trick.”
  • It’s not clear whether China is still manipulating its currency. You manipulate currency to keep its exchange rate But from 2005 to 2013, China’s currency (the renminbi) rose 35 percent. No one really knows whether the renminbi is still undervalued. Even if it is, that’s not entirely bad: it allows U.S. consumers to buy Chinese goods at cheap prices, among other things.
  • Mitt Romney made the same promise in 2012. Trump may think himself forceful and leader-like by making this pledge, but he’s not original.

Based on all this, it seems Trump aims to provoke China—perhaps the world’s second-greatest military and economic power—over an issue that may have gone away some years ago.

Why did I do this research? Because it’s nearly impossible to dialogue, let alone collaborate on policymaking, without a common understanding of the facts. When we disagree on facts, we do well to dig deeper and sort them out. When we ignore facts entirely, we can move in directions that may be not only irrelevant, but catastrophic.

I’m going to try doing this with his other positions. Perhaps I’ll find that some of them are solid and thoughtful. I hope so. Based on Trump’s public record so far, I doubt it. But let’s see.

 

How Much News Do We Need?

Last night, BBC’s World News America led with yet another story on the suffering in Syria. I was reluctant to watch it—not because I don’t care about that horrendous conflict, but because it was yet another story.

How much news from Syria, or from anywhere, do we need? How much can we take? Is there a point at which we “get the point” and can skip the following stories with impunity? How many of the “following stories”?

Let’s start with basic attitudes toward news. For me, the news is required reading/viewing. I try to write with nuance about some difficult and complex issues, and there’s no way to do that without a great deal of input, both hard news and diverse analysis. For others, news might guide them in how to vote, which charities to support, or where to roll up their sleeves and help out.

My understanding of my faith also plays a role. It tells me that every human being bears the image of God, and that God cares deeply, massively, for those who suffer. So I’m called to care deeply for them too. The way I can connect with their stories, their situations, is (in part) through the news.

But…

News is everywhere these days. We have 24/7 news stations. A myriad of websites are always available, always telling stories. Some of us throwbacks still get the newspaper every day.

The problem is, the macro-level stories and issues take time to develop—usually months or years. So these news media, needing something to fill the space, tell slight variations of the same story from one day to the next.

It’s a barrage.

And with each day’s news, the decision comes up again—especially in stories that involve suffering. Watch too many of these, and we risk becoming desensitized. There’s a limit to how much we can take. It’s why a lot of people either check out entirely or (as I’ve done) go on news fasts.

On the other hand, maybe the next story provides an insight I never had before. Or the story on suffering in Syria tells (as it often does) of this mother in that city who has lost x children in the conflict. If I miss the story, I lose the insight, or I fail to connect with this particular divine image bearer.

Of course, this isn’t just true of news from faraway lands. How many stories about our local homeless folks do we need to hear before the same difficult decision—to watch or not to watch this segment, on this night—faces us?

Ultimately, we make the decision story by story, day by day. And I don’t think it gets easier. Have you found a good way to absorb news stories without going to overload? How much news do you need?

Looking for Common Ground on the Gun Debate

When it comes to guns, what can we all agree on?

You may think this a fool’s question, especially if you’ve spent any time with the media (print, broadcast, social, or otherwise) in the past 48 hours. We have relived, yet again, a pattern that is not only tragic but disheartening. A horrific shooting takes place. Law enforcement tries to parse out exactly what happened. In the meantime, partisans on both ends of the gun debate begin to broadcast—loudly, in take-no-prisoners language—their well-worn arguments.

Many of us stay off Facebook for a few days.

Back in 2012, after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we ran a little experiment about the gun issue in this space as well as on Facebook. I asked people to respond to some honest, open questions in order to explore and express their own beliefs about guns. (If you weren’t part of the original conversation, take a look at the questions and see how you’d answer them.)

The stories we shared and heard were remarkable. One person wrote about the relatives she has lost to gun violence. Another spoke in almost spiritual terms about the joy of hunting.

Oddly, we came close to agreement on a couple of things. Background checks were good. Waiting periods were good. Best of all, we left the clichés behind and actually started to talk with one another.

Today, in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, I want to try another little experiment. Let’s see if we can lay out a few things on which we all agree. It’s not as foolish as it looks; it just means we have to go back to basics. Waaaay back. Can we, for instance, agree to the following:

  1. These shootings are horrible. Obvious? Of course. But stay with it awhile. Allow yourself to feel that sense of horror and sadness that comes with each news flash. Then, when you’ve done that, know this: the person on the other side of the gun debate feels it too.
  2. We should keep weapons away from people who plan to use them in mass shootings. This makes yesterday’s Senate votes nearly incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for those votes, however, is this statement as self-evident as I think it is?
  3. It can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to tell a future mass shooter from anyone else. Taken together, these folks do what they do from a dizzying array of motives. Workplace dissatisfaction. Mental illness. A deep sense of exclusion from society’s benefits. Terrorism. No one-size-fits-all solution will fit all.
  4. It takes time to figure out what happened. How often, after a tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino, do we hear a police chief answer questions with “that is still under investigation”? It can take days, even weeks, to nail down the whats and whys. That makes jumping to conclusions—and, more important, acting on those conclusions—perilous.

What do you think? Can we agree on all these?

If we can, several good things can happen. Our common reactions to the horror can foster empathy: they remind us that our adversaries are, first and foremost, human. Common ground inspires hope that maybe we can work together to find more common ground—or at least places where we can compromise. If people in power take these steps, they might just find enough space to collaborate on solutions and take action.

And action to prevent another shooting is what we so desperately need. I’m betting we can all agree on that.

 

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.