The Sad Story of Shirley Sherrod

July 21st, 2010

Like many people, I’m disappointed and discouraged by the news stories about Shirley Sherrod’s forced resignation over remarks posted by conservative bloggers out of context. I worry that we’re learning not to listen to each other; rather than making the effort to pay attention to another person’s viewpoint, we habitually seek through their words to find significant ammunition to be angry about, words that we can blame them for, and if that takes selective misreading, many of us are way too willing to do so.

As a writing teacher, I ask my students to explore a topic in depth, to rethink their thoughts through writing. I believe that the writing of educated adults can and should show complexity. In my classes, I call this “specify and subordinate.” Rather than a stand “pro” or “con,” when you use “specify and subordinate” you demonstrate a specific extent on the spectrum between them. To do this, we have to create an awareness of how a logical person could believe the opposing side. It means saying things like, “I’m not saying that X; however, Y.” or “If it is true that X–and I’m not sure it is–then Y.”

When I heard the edited version of Sherrod’s remarks, I felt it was clear that she was establishing a background to lead up to a greater point. She was talking about her first reaction to a situation, her habitual response, as a strategy to lead to the revelation that her habitual response turned out to be wrong. She was going to talk about a learning experience.

As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, I cultivate habits through meditation that attempt to cut through the habitual responses. I’ve seen, through inward reflection, the many ways that my previous responses have been short-sighted and ignorant. To understand these lessons and explain them to others, sometimes I need more than a sound-bite. I need to be able to convey in depth, “I used to believe X, but now I believe Y.” That relies on someone listening to the beginning, middle and end of my message.

I worry that the case of Shirley Sherrod will scare people away from that kind of honest introspection. People will be afraid to say on the record, “I used to believe X” because the “X” can be taken out of context, presented as a complete sentence, ridiculed and admitted as evidence. Instead of learning from our mistakes and talking about the ways we’ve learned from our mistakes, we’re going to plow forward with the idea that we’ve never made mistakes, that our reasoning has never been faulty.

And instead of paying attention to people who see things differently, to truly understand what mistakes they have made and how they learn from their mistakes, we’ll only look for ways to prove them wrong.

I truly hope we can create a better world than that.

3 Responses to “The Sad Story of Shirley Sherrod”

  1. Koho says:

    Amen, Bij.

  2. Hadi Kadri says:

    I completely agree, Andrew! I had the same initial reaction: she was clearly leading up to something, telling the beginning of a story. I wondered if it was possible that other folks just didn’t hear it the same way; or if they were ignoring the reality in order to assassinate someone’s character.

    We’re definitely encouraging people to strip all the complexity from their speech, their arguments, their writing. Which is pretty sad.

    On the positive side, I was glad to hear on NPR this evening that the White House admitted they rushed to judgment and plans to review the firing. How cool would it be if they can make this right!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. encyclops says:

    My initial response was “Well, I know there are a lot of people who are only hearing the ‘I used to believe X’ part and judging her based on that, but this whole thing would never have come up if someone who knew exactly what they were doing hadn’t intentionally ‘misread’ her for political ends.”

    But then I realized that the “lot of people” are the ones who make it possible to use something like this for political ends in the first place, that the cynical few have to exploit the crowd who aren’t paying attention to the whole story in order to make use of that story at all.

    I’m sure, too, that there are a lot of people for whom X is so bad that no amount of growth can really recover trust. I think this essentialism (“once a racist, always a racist” or “all liberals are like this under the skin”) is a huge part of the problem right now.

    Short version: I like what you have to say on this issue. This isn’t a new thing, but I feel as though I usually post to disagree slightly, and I wanted to redress the balance a bit. 🙂

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