Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Media’ Category
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:
- 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.
- 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 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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- It’s sweeps month—the 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.
- 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.
- 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.
It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.
This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”
The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.
The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.
This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.
That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.
Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.
Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.
Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.
The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.
Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.
Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.
Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.
Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.
The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.
So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:
Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.
This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.
That is our story.
Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”
Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.
All this is indisputable.
The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.
As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.
In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.
This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.
How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.
I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.
So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?
I changed my morning routine recently, and it made me wonder if this is how polarization happens.
For years, my wife and I have set our alarm to one particular radio station. In between the usual traffic, weather, and sports, the hosts comment on the news of the day as well as daffy human interest stories and trends from around the world. These folks are funny and delightful and their banter makes for a light start to the day.
Over the past year or so, though, their comments have taken on a harder edge. The parent company airs a full slate of right-wing talk radio, so it came as no surprise that our morning hosts leaned conservative. In the run-up to the election, however, I heard their commentary as increasingly shrill and cutting. I would get out of bed with a knot in my stomach.
One day I couldn’t deal with it anymore. So I reset our alarm to National Public Radio.
Since then I’ve been happier with the morning wakeup, and doggone it if I’m not smarter when I get out of bed now. Still, two things unsettle me.
First, I have stopped listening to a station I disagree with on many points—in favor of a station I agree with on many points. This sort of “flight to allies” happens a lot in U.S. culture, and it serves to harden the divides between us. When we get our news and analysis from one source, with one worldview, it becomes more difficult to think outside that worldview. It is easy to assume that our perspective is simply “the way it is.” Moreover, we see people on the “other side” through the filter of the source’s perspective, which more often than not provides a distorted picture of them.
Second, what motivated me to change stations? Was it the worldview of the hosts, or the way they communicated it? I believe it was the latter. Unfortunately, many of their political arguments started and ended with the stock phrases of “their side”—as well as a certain tone of hostility and indignation with the “other side.” This, too, happens a lot in U.S. culture: think of the level of thought and discourse on partisan talk radio or, for that matter, through much of the presidential election.
Now consider this story as a microcosm. If you multiply it by the number of instances where we “turn the dial” away from those who disagree with us, then multiply by the 300 million people in the U.S., it’s easy to see how these small individual choices contribute to our polarized culture. If you multiply the stock phrases of these two radio hosts by the hours of airtime devoted to similar phrases on angry talk radio throughout the U.S., it’s easy to see that this limited public vocabulary makes our divides harder and harder to bridge.
Am I reading this right? Is this one way in which polarization happens? What do you think?
Every now and then I run across an article so compelling that I have to share it with you. This past week, there were two. Both speak to the rich, substantive dialogue we could—and, I would say, should—be having in this U.S. election year.
First, the ever-perceptive Thomas Friedman spins a succinct narrative of the United States’ last 30 years. In a nutshell, the country had a history of educating its people to the level of the latest technology and innovation—thus equipping them for emerging high-skilled jobs—but stopped doing so around the 1980s. As a national workforce, therefore, we lack the skills to compete with other countries around the globe, many of which have surpassed the U.S. in such basic but essential capabilities as reading and math.
The second article, by Scott Shane of The New York Times, touches on a related topic, discussing the dismal U.S. rankings on issues from child poverty to student achievement to obesity. A national dialogue on these and other problems might go a long way toward promoting the health and vigor of U.S. society. Yet Shane posits that the culture of American exceptionalism prevents us from even reflecting on these issues, let alone discussing them in the public square.
Friedman and Shane touch on some of the most pressing challenges in the U.S. today. They are more than worthy of dialogue on a substantial scale. For example, one would expect that the people seeking to lead the country would address the problems that plague the country. It is said that such a strategy would be political suicide, for the reasons Shane describes, and he is probably right.
The question is: does it have to be this way?
This pattern has probably been around since the first election. My sense, though, is that we’re hearing more of it than usual. See if you agree.
Imagine that I have decided to vote for Barack Obama and you have decided to vote for Mitt Romney. We’re having coffee one day, and you say something critical about Obama. At this point, I have several options. I can mull over what you just said, determine whether it has merit in my opinion, and respond to you directly. That comes closest to dialogue.
I could also defend the president against the criticism you made. Though that leans more toward debate or conversation than dialogue, it could lead to a healthy, vigorous exchange of views. We might both gain some insight from it.
A third option seems to be the most popular these days. In response to your criticism of Obama, I respond instantly with a criticism of Romney. My point may not even cover the same topic as your point. Perhaps you criticized Obamacare and I disparage Romney’s vast wealth. In essence, we stop talking with each other, or even to each other, and start talking past each other.
OK, so this third option does come with the territory of politics. But at times, it seems to be all I hear—not only from folks like us, but from the candidates themselves. While they have certainly spent time laying out their basic positions (the viability of these positions, and the unspoken details, are quite another matter), there just seems to be a higher percentage of trash talk in the air.
And that leads me to wonder: do we have so little to say in favor of our own candidates that we have no choice but to trash the other candidate?
There may be something to this. Both candidates, as we discussed last week, have substantial flaws. Many Republicans have found it difficult to generate enthusiasm for Romney. Many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama. This is too bad, because (as we also discussed last week) both candidates have considerable qualifications. We could do—and have done—much worse.
The issue with the high percentage of other-candidate-trashing, from what I can see, is that it saps our energy, heightens our cynicism, and sharpens our divides, leaving us with few personal resources to do the hard work of democracy (i.e., to participate actively in improving our civic and community life). A civil delineation of differences, on the other hand, can enlighten us. And a description of a candidate’s strengths and accomplishments might even inspire us to think that, maybe, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if said candidate got into office.
Are you hearing this too? More than the usual percentage of trash talk? I’d love to hear your perspective, so feel free to share it here (or on Facebook).
Dear Reader, the last few weeks have been a blur—and a great deal of it had to do with getting the book on press. As of last week, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart is off to the printers. We’re looking at a publication date sometime around mid-November (if you want to beat the holiday rush, feel free to pre-order now). The pre-press chaos has taken me away from this space, unfortunately, but things should be relatively steady now that I can’t change the book anymore. So, on to this week’s topic…
When the notorious video of Mitt Romney’s fundraiser first came out, it seemed like an interesting case study of how to think through a breaking news story in a dialogic fashion. Let’s follow the developments as they unfolded—in the news and in my brain—and consider what the results might say to us.
(One disclosure will help make sense of this case. After much paying of attention to the candidates, I plan to support Obama over Romney in the upcoming U.S. election. At bottom, I think both are good and honorable people; it just so happens that I tend to agree more with Obama’s way of thinking than Romney’s. My position matters here only because it aligns me with the 47%.)
I first heard of the candidate’s remarks in a news story. My gut reaction was to be personally insulted: I do not see myself as a victim, I have a strong sense of personal responsibility, etc. How dare he.
Quickly my dialogic self chimed in: You know how often these quotes are taken out of context—or even outright misrepresented by the other side. Do not make an assessment until you’ve seen the source.
So I looked at the source*—while also paying attention to any explanation Romney might make. Both, I figured, would provide context and nuance.
No such luck. As you know by now, he said what he said. The day after the news broke, Romney admitted that he spoke inelegantly, but he did not try to defend it.
So now I’m still insulted, but at least I have the full picture. End of story, right?
Not really. One valuable tool in the dialogue toolbox is to ask the unasked question. Often, after a few news cycles, the same questions and data keep showing up, and no new ground is covered. In this case, after a few days of reports on who does and does not pay income tax, what the political fallout would be, etc., one of these unasked questions came to mind:
Is it really ethical to bring a hidden camera into a private fundraiser?
I’d still be stewing over that, except that unasked question led quickly to another unasked question:
Why do we allow private fundraisers for presidential candidates anyway?
In general, I’m a big fan of preserving the privacy of people in the public eye. But as I see it, the point of U.S. presidential campaigns (and one good argument for how damned long they are) is to get us fully acquainted with the candidates—the way they think about the world, their stands on issues, their character flaws, all of it—so we can make a serious and informed decision. How can we do that when candidates are hiding key elements of their thinking, only to be trotted out for private fundraisers?
- Gut reaction: insulted and outraged.
- Dialogic reaction: insulted and outraged, but with a more complete understanding of the event, and added thinking on two deeper issues regarding the structure of our political process.
If we stay at the gut level, we get to carry around our outrage but have little to add to the general conversation (the outrage has received its fair share of attention already). If we delve deeper into the issue, asking questions of it in a dialogic way, we come up with more questions and insights that might make a difference, however small, in the general conversation. If enough of us explore and raise enough of these questions and insights, who knows what kind of change we might effect?*If I had completely followed my dialogic self’s advice, I would have watched the entire video. I have not had the time to do so, and perhaps that is a failing on my part. Here, I am relying on Romney’s reaction; if the full video had included anything to mitigate the effect of the 47% comments, he would have brought that up loud and clear.
Sometimes, in this U.S. election season, you have a dig through a certain amount of misleading verbiage to get a better handle on the story.
This came to mind last week when a startling tidbit appeared on Facebook: Fox News had called Paul Ryan a liar. To be sure, other media were making similar accusations shortly after the Republican vice-presidential candidate gave his acceptance speech to the national convention. But a conservative news organization slamming a conservative candidate?
I pay close attention to this sort of thing. When a person or organization goes against the party line, it sometimes reveals a penetrating insight about the truth of the matter. So if both The New York Times and Fox News (traditionally perceived as liberal and conservative, respectively) were accusing Ryan of lying, perhaps he was. That could be a serious charge.
Was it accurate?
I clicked through the Facebook link to the story. There it was in living color: “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
Wow. So Fox News did say that.
Not so fast. At the bottom of the article was a brief bio of the author—Sally Kohn, described as “a Fox News contributor and writer”—and a link. One click brought me to her website, another to her bio. A close reading revealed that her writing, her experience, and her activities run the gamut of the political spectrum, with an emphasis toward causes and media traditionally perceived as liberal.
So the Facebook post was inaccurate on two counts. First, Fox News didn’t write about Paul Ryan’s speech; Sally Kohn of Fox News did. Second, Sally Kohn does not appear to toe the conservative party line. Her view of Ryan’s address is less remarkable when you consider that.
What’s my point? I am not by any means impugning Sally Kohn’s writing or integrity. Nor am I making any judgment on Paul Ryan’s speech (I haven’t watched it yet). What I am emphasizing is the importance of getting the full story, ideally reading it in several sources on different points of the political spectrum. In my book (now available for pre-order), I call this the “balanced media diet”: if we get our news from, say, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or The National Review and Mother Jones, or The Economist and the International Socialist Review—or, even better, all six—we’ll have a far broader knowledge base from which to test the veracity of any given news item.
Most likely, we’ll also be more inclined to dialogue. One (sometimes painful) effect of a balanced media diet is that we come face to face with the legitimate viewpoints of the “other side.” We can understand how its adherents might come to the assumptions they cherish and the conclusions they put forth. We begin to see that our view is not necessarily the One True View, or even one of two opposing views, but rather one among many. Our thinking gets more nuanced. When this happens, we are more open to dialogue with our adversaries—because it’s harder to think of them as adversaries any longer.
Have you found news items that aren’t what they first appear to be? Have you read a publication from the other side of an issue and found it more enlightening than infuriating? I’d love to hear your experiences along these lines.