Quote 1: “Come on! Enemies who would utterly annihilate America! . . . They who’d obviously have information on plots, say to carry out jihad. Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable—not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Quote 2: “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race.’ . . . This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. . . . And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it [racism] over?,’ I will say yes.”
Quote 3: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
So, which speaker did you decide should be understood absolutely literally, and which of the other two did you decide was engaging in hyperbole? Did you choose the enthusiast for waterboarding as the one to be taken literally, the one who conflated torture with a Christian sacrament? Or perhaps you decided to take literally the one who bitterly hoped to see others suffer as her own people had suffered. What about the one who thought it would be better for someone who caused a child to sin to be tied to a heavy stone and thrown in the sea? Is that the person you decided really meant for his followers to drown their enemies?
The point of this game is to demonstrate that how we interpret someone’s words often says more about us than it does about that person. The person to whom we give the benefit of the doubt is often the person we already like, respect, or admire. The person whose words we interpret in the worst possible way is often the person we already dislike and want to convince others to dislike also.
That’s why we usually don’t bother to look for other clues for interpretive context. Take the three quotes offered above as examples.
- If if we like the one who called for baptismal waterboarding, we won’t bother to notice that she made her statement during a tub-thumping political speech for the National Rifle Association, in which she contrasted her views with those of the sitting president.
- If we like the one who offered a bitter wish to see an unarmed white teen shot in the back by a cop, we won’t have any trouble noticing that she offered these thoughts as one observation on race among many, in an interview about her life experiences, and which took place against a backdrop of numerous recent high-profile cases of Black men being killed by police.
- And, of course, if we like the one who proposed drowning those who led small children who believe in him into sin, then we’ll have a hard time understanding why those who don’t believe in him and don’t particularly like him can find some of his ideas, such as this one, to be “hard sayings.”
Until I looked up Quotes 1 and 2, by Sarah Palin and Toni Morrison respectively, I did not realize that they had made their controversial remarks on torture and racism almost exactly one year apart. But I did find it fascinating to see that how the remarks of each were received broke down mostly along tribal lines.
While each tribe may have had a few nits to pick with their standard bearer—many conservative Christians wished Palin had stopped short of comparing waterboarding to baptism; those who generally agreed with Morrison wished she had spoken a bit more carefully—for the most part it was the opposing tribe that cried foul in each case. Liberals found one more thing to hate about Sarah Palin; conservatives had all their worst fears confirmed about an outspoken Black woman author.
How can we avoid the pitfalls of tribalism and give all sides the benefit of the doubt they are owed in justice? Perhaps by remembering what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about rash judgment.
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty . . . of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor. To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved (CCC 2477–2478).