IT’S EASY TO TRIP OVER
Years ago — in another life, it seems nowadays — when I was a newspaper reporter, I wrote a caption for an interior shot of a headquarters building just constructed for the township sewer commission in the district I covered.
It was our style to begin photo captions with a word or phrase relevant to the subject of the image. This provided small opportunities for reporters to be clever, and I thought I was being mildly so when I began this particular caption: “New Digs.”
Get it? Sewer commission? “New Digs” — meaning, New Home — as in “Come over sometime and see my new digs.” Right? Seemed clear enough to me. But the day the photo ran I received a phone call from the sewer commission secretary.
“Just what did you mean by that sarcastic comment?” she demanded angrily.
“What sarcastic comment?” I asked, quite perplexed.
“That ‘New Digs’ business.”
“Well…you know…guys who work on sewers have to dig. It was a pun.”
Silence. After which: “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints lately. And we thought you were trying to embarrass us. Like pointing out that people were taking digs at the sewer commission.”
And so I learned a great lesson about the endless variety of ways in which one’s words can be misunderstood. Context and point of view make a big difference.
President Obama had a similar experience — from which one hopes he might derive a similar insight. Attending the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland, Obama noted the recently announced intention of Ulster’s unity government to dismantle the so-called “peace lines” separating Catholic and Protestant areas which have been maintained since the settlement of that long-running turmoil known as “The Troubles.” The Washington Post reported…
“The president specifically endorsed an end to segregated housing and schools, calling it an essential element of lasting peace.
“‘If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division. It discourages cooperation,’ Obama said.”
What was probably an innocent and well intentioned observation that reflects America’s own struggle over civil rights fell hard on the ears of Catholics, some of whom took it as a dig at Catholic education.
The Scottish Catholic Observer headlined a story on the Obama statement, “US president undermines Catholic schools…”
“President Barack Obama repeated the oft disproved claim that Catholic education increases division in front of an audience of 2,000 young people, including many Catholics, at Belfast’s Waterfront hall when he arrived in the country this morning.”
The paper contrasted what they took to be Obama’s outlook with the words of Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who told a Scottish audience that Catholic education has provided “a rare place” where…
“‘intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together’…. During Mass at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, on Friday night he said that ‘the Catholic school is vitally important…a critical component of the Church,’ adding that Catholic education provides young people with a wonderful opportunity to ‘grow up with Jesus.’”
Obama’s words — or those of whoever penned his remarks — are understandably steeped in the American social commitment to integration. Back to the Washington Post…
“Drawing on America’s own imperfect battle with segregation, Obama recalled how well over a century after the U.S. Civil War, the nation he leads is still not fully united. His own parents — a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya — would not have been able to marry in some states, Obama said, and he would have had a hard time casting a ballot, let alone running for office.
“‘But over time, laws changed, and hearts and minds changed, sometimes driven by courageous lawmakers, but more often driven by committed citizens,’ he said.”
All very well and good. But this incident demonstrates the lesson of my sewer commission experience — writ large, since we’re talking about the President of the United States.
Obama’s text should have been flown by some Catholic authority, although that might not have been the easiest thing, given his relations with the Church just now. Well, at least somebody who’s clued in to local sensitivities — his advance people should have taken care of that.
We can too-readily blunder into other people’s issues and say something that strikes a discordant note, even if our intention is to be positive or flattering. The risks are all the greater when it’s a government leader crossing national/cultural/religious boundaries.
It’s easy to dig your way in. Harder to dig your way out.