Words are as fragile and sensitive as the human beings who utter them. They need careful nurturing and appropriate context and presentation for their meaning and intent to be realized.
This point was made effectively in a best-selling book on punctuation a few years ago that showed how a sentence pointing out the simple truth that "The panda eats shoots and leaves" takes on a new life and meaning with the addition of a few commas, becoming "The panda eats, shoots, and leaves."
So we have it with the recent almost-too-ridiculous-to-discuss incident with Bill Bennett's alleged racist remarks on his radio show. The remarks, taken out of context by those attacking Bennett, are being used to make the exact opposite point of his and brand him a racist.
A listener called in suggesting that abortion might be an explanation for our Social Security crisis (with more adults around paying Social Security taxes, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in). Bennett replied that such a hypothesis is as absurd and repugnant as the suggestion made in a best-selling book called "Freakonomics" that aborting more black babies would lead to a lower crime rate.
Bennett's point, perhaps to belabor what for some reason to many is not obvious, was that such an allegation is a bizarre, perverse way to view the world.
What is going on in our country today? Is there not enough evil around that we have to look for it and manufacture it where it doesn't exist?
Sure, one could argue that Bennett should have considered that he broadcasts to a large audience and that he might have been insensitive to not appreciate that such a supercharged example might elicit emotional responses. However, even if this captures what happened, an insensitive moment is not racism.
A number of questions and ironies come to mind as I review this strange incident.
Ask yourself, in moments when you have doubts about someone and her motives, if you tend to err on the side of suspicion of bad or attribution of good. I sadly think that, overwhelmingly, our tendency is to be suspicious and accuse. Why does the natural tendency seem to drift toward the bad and not the good?
Ask yourself, when you listen to someone speak, if you are truly listening to him. Are you really paying attention? Did you walk away hearing what he said, or were you really listening to yourself and did you walk away with what you think he said or want to believe he said? How many of us really listen carefully to those speaking to us?