Andrew Sullivan, on the Octavia Nasr/Shirley Sherrod foofarahs:
It seems completely obvious to me that the USDA needs to re-hire Sherrod just as CNN needs to rehire Octavia Nasr. Both were canned based on knee-jerk reactions to distorted fragments of speech, which, when viewed in their entirety, are completely within the realm of fair – and honest – discourse. I think it is the honest discourse that the ideologues hate – because it violates their doctrines, which must be maintained regardless of the complex human beings and complicated stories our lives invariably tell.
Well, yeah, but I hope Andrew will recognize himself in his condemnation of the right-wing ideologues he rightly condemns here. He’s often an ideologue about the issues he cares most about, and abusively unfair to those he’s identified as his enemies. Is there any word more loaded and less meaningful than “Christianist”? It means, “Christians Andrew Sullivan doesn’t like.” It’s a way of slapping a label on that sort of Christian so their arguments and their concerns don’t have to be taken seriously. Andrew does the same thing, in principle, that he condemns others for. And guess what? So do I. And you, Reader, do too; if you don’t think you do, you are not examining yourself closely enough.
It’s human nature for us to make snap judgments of others, based on limited information and experience. I made a quick and emotional judgment about the Journolist thing based on what I know from personal experience about liberal bias in the media, and based on my own personal experience of very nearly being the professional victim of a group conspiring on its semi-private e-mail list to destroy me personally and professionally because they didn’t like serious questions I was raising about their beliefs in my journalism. I still believe I am right about Journolist, but upon reflection, especially reflection about the Shirley Sherrod story, I wish I had waited to get more information before reaching a conclusion. The point, though, is that the facts in the Journolist case fit my personal biases like a glove, and I thought I knew what I was seeing. The truth is more complicated.
It is impossible to make completely objective judgments. We cannot possibly know everything about people. We do the best with the information we have. But if I’ve learned anything in the past decade of thinking and writing, it’s an appreciation for the limitations of my own judgment. This is a lesson I have to learn almost every day, and probably will keep learning until the moment of my death. It’s called humility, and it’s the unfortunate truth that we often have to be humiliated by our own foolishness and rashness to learn it.
A clarification: sometimes things really are what they seem to be. Often our judgments are sound. I do not believe that if one’s enemies or opponents only “understood” one, they would agree with one’s conclusions. We are tempted to think that because we are certain that our conclusions are correct, as everyone would agree if only they would see things clearly. That’s a fallacy, and a destructive one, because it could lead one to assume that the only reason others don’t agree is because they are malicious or willfully ignorant. I don’t believe, for example, that Andrew Sullivan disagrees with me on gay marriage because he’s bad; I believe that we have different, and mutually contradictory, beliefs on what sexuality is, and what marriage is. I think Andrew is wrong on this, but I don’t think his being wrong makes him a bad person, nor do I think that the whole of Andrew Sullivan comes down to how he stands on same-sex marriage. A few years ago, I was talking with a friend about how unfair I thought Andrew was to conservative Christians in his blogging, explaining that I didn’t expect him to agree in the least, but I thought his commentary was totally without nuance, and failed to draw important and fair distinctions. The friend then told me of an act of mercy Andrew performed for someone who was a virtual stranger, something so unbelievably risky and loving that it permanently changed the way I thought about Andrew. Whenever he publishes something about people like me that I think is outrageously unfair or nasty, I remind myself that that’s not who he is; it’s only part of who he is.
I hope people cut me the same break. I want to be clear here: none of us have a right to avoid being judged at some level by our words and deeds. Mel Gibson, for example, is guilty of acts of incredible viciousness to his ex-lover. Perhaps his struggle with alcoholism and mental illness should mitigate our verdict on his behavior, but that kind of behavior needs to be judged, and harshly condemned. We cannot be a society that condones or excuses it. Still, we know enough about Gibson to know that there’s more to him than the raging and quite possibly depressed drunk that we heard on those phone messages. This does not excuse what he did, and none of his artistic accomplishments can justify such rotten behavior (nor, for that matter, does his vile behavior sully his artistic accomplishments). My point simply is that people are complicated, and cannot normally be reduced to a few deeds, or selected words. The porn star I wrote about yesterday has no right to claim exemption from moral judgment, for good or for ill, because of her deeds and words, which I find worthy of ridicule and condemnation. I hope, though, that I always keep in front of me the truth that she is a human being and a child of God — a fact that in no way excuses or justifies her actions, which are worthy of strong
refudiation repudiation (heh heh), but which should keep me squarely focused on her essential humanity, however stained by her sins and failings.
The day will never come when I, or you, can avoid snap judgments based on our own prejudices, and confirmation bias. It’s just not in our nature. But we can learn to do better. I do think it’s horrible what Breitbart and others who believed his lie about Shirley Sherrod did to that good woman. But looking at my own record over the years, I know I have to be careful about getting on my high horse, because I’ve been caught out too many times rushing to conclusions based on faulty information and judgment. So, to circle back to how I started this post, I agree with Andrew that ideologues don’t want to see the full, messy, complicated truth, because it might interfere with their preferred story line. But I would challenge Andrew — as I challenge myself, and you readers — to think about ways in which we act the same way. One man’s close-minded prejudice is another man’s standing firmly on principle. The line between the two is murky, but we should be conscious that it’s there, and form our judgments in light of it. This is not to say we shouldn’t make judgments; if you believe, for example, that gay marriage is a civil right, or a moral outrage, you should fight for what you believe to be right. We should, however, be careful in how we arrive at our judgments, and how those judgments may close our minds to further information that could and should change our minds. Be careful not to become so focused on winning that you deny the humanity of your opponents, and cast fair play out the window. It’s a constant temptation for bloggers. Trust me, I know, having been guilty of it so often. All I can do is to try to recognize that weakness in myself, and try to be more discerning going forward.
The older I get, and the more mistakes I make, the more I see that humility is the most important epistemological virtue.