to try to understand how we mis-communicate, either intentionally or not.
Here’s what I learned.
I ran headlong into a tactic used by the religious right recently that caught me unaware. The subject was a simple invitation I sent to a group of religious communicators to attend a pre-screening of a new film, “Theologians Under Hitler.”
I was surprised to read an email thread attributing to me the intent to sponsor a forum that would provide “liberals and progressives” the occasion to beat up on conservatives by charging they want to establish a theocracy.
In fact, I had no such intent. This thought had never occurred to me. However, when I replied in this way the writer of the email, an individual from the evangelical right, wrote back that my intent was clear, no interpretation was needed and having called me manipulative, he now was calling me dishonest.
At first I was perplexed. Actually it made me angry. But I am more interested in understanding the process than remaining in this state, so I began to search for information to help me understand what was happening.
First, I reviewed my own language in the original note to see if I did, in fact, frame the event in an imbalanced way. I sought the opinions of others. After this self-critique, I don’t think the note leads to the conclusion this individual has drawn. Moreover, even if I erred, it was not intentional, so the claim that I set up these conditions intending to attack another group of Christians is unfair and inaccurate.
I happened upon an article on intelligent design that discusses a communications ploy that seems familiar. In it, Daniel C. Dinnett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University writes, “the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist’s work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a “controversy” to teach. Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.” (Show me the Science, Daniel C. Dinnett, August 28, 2005, The New York Times)
In talking with others who have experienced similar charges, it appears this tactic is used often, leaving the inexperienced victim standing quite amazed and baffled. Recently I spoke with a rabbi who found herself called a “self-loathing Jew” because she spoke for the rights of the Palestinian people.
The tactic diverts attention from the subject and focuses a personal attack on the individual. As Dinnett notes, It falsifies or mis-states content. In my experience, it mis-characterized my intent. When the individual responds defensively, the conversation is diverted away from substance and into personal back-and-forth that is winless for all concerned.
I don’t think this represents the mainstream of the U.S. population, I think it’s a practice of extremists. I also think it represents a clear danger to civic community and free speech.