22 October 2010

Fired for sound bites

Have we become so dependent on sound bites that we're incapable of listening to anything in context? It seems like it.

The most recent example, of course, is this week's firing of Juan Williams by NPR. Out of context, yeah, his fears about riding on planes with those in "Muslim garb" are indeed offensive, and his feelings were awkwardly stated. But in context, it's clear that Williams wasn't advocating religious profiling or suggesting discriminatory public policies. The personal feelings he expressed weren't rational ones, but they were human. The appearance is that NPR was looking for an excuse to fire and Williams and found one.

Williams' sacking isn't all that much different than the U.S. administration's firing of Ag employee Shirley Sherrod last summer. Yes, she admitted to what appeared to be a discriminatory episode, but the context was one deploring just that kind of thinking.

We live in an era where leaders, celebrities and even we regular folk are encouraged to be candid and honest, yet we pounce on people based on out-of-context remarks. (Another victim: Christine O'Donnell. There's no doubt she's unqualified to become a U.S. senator. And she may be loony — just not as loony as the out-of-context clips might indicate.) If we want openness, that's counterproductive.

It's time to start listening more carefully.