“When you give a lesson in meanness to a critter or a person, don't be surprised if they learn their lesson” Will Rogers
Context is a powerful interpreter of facts. Understanding the entirety of what a person said, when and where they said it and why are crucial components of getting the facts straight – we need to listen and read as carefully as a good commentator would speak and write. This week many reporters, politicians and other pundits blew it, and we saw a new low in journalism, politics and social commentary.
It started sinking with a charge and then a counter charge of racism. For a brief moment, a news blogger, Andrew Breitbart, tried to show that the NAACP, which had charged others of racism, approved a black woman’s decision to withhold help from a white man. But the context of her admission showed something quite different. However, few people took the trouble to look behind the sound bite Then, those who jumped in to condemn her were later embarrassed to discover that the out-of-context quote disregarded that she had given a powerful testimony of racial reconciliation.
Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Agriculture departments’ Director of Rural Development for Georgia, speaking before members of the NAACP, several months back, was urging its members in March of 2010 to consider advantages of job opportunities USDA programs for rural development.
But first she gave her audience some background. She grew up in south Georgia, and saw a lynching and the perpetrators released on a technicality; she wanted out of the south! Then, her father was murdered but his assailants were never charged; her family next lived through a cross-burning. But, she vowed to stay in the south and work for change through the tumultuous decades of ending racial segregation. Had any of her accusers or repudiators listened to just one minute on either end of “gotcha” words, they would have heard a story much different and more convicting than the sound bite. Listen for yourself!
Ms Sherrod ended her speech by paraphrasing a proverb: Life is a grindstone, but whether it grinds us down or polishes us up is up to us.
Words are also like a grindstone – tearing down or building up. Words have meanings, expressing ideas that have consequences. In many of the reports of Ms. Sherrod’s speech, we saw consequences of words, taken out of context and used as weapons - offensively and defensively. And it was the context, the full story, of why Ms Sherrod withheld her full help that should have engaged our full attention!
I hope Ms. Sherrod’s grinding experience will polish her, even as she has been bruised by other people’s rush to judge her. More than that I hope we remember the power of words – especially when we decide to use them as millstones to grind down those with whom we disagree. Words have power to build up or tear down, to curse or to bless.
At one time, flaming arrows were terror weapons, shot by enemies invading a fortress to kill wound and demoralize its defenders. Now we shoot sound bites. We who live with sound bites should pause instead of speeding down information highways; we should ask a few questions that many journalists, politicians and other pundits neglect or decline to ask. Until we develop this habit, we will never rightly understand each other or the world in which we live. We will remain more interested in fighting with each other than learning what is true