Paula Deen turned out to be the girl who kicked the hornet’s nest. I am always intrigued by what makes any transmission interesting, impressive, emotional or downright offensive to others. I have seen veritable firestorms unleashed by statements which, to me at least, seemed hardly at all provocative.
Every so often I get a positive response, a radically, enthusiastically positive response to something I say and it catches me by surprise. Totally. It always makes me feel like Barney Fife when Andy would exult, "Wow, Barney, that's a brilliant idea."
Barney would answer with unfeigned confusion written all over his face,"What? What did I say?"
Such moments leave me a bit confused. Is the "wowed" listener actually mocking me because whatever I said was nothing more than a rather pedestrian statement of the obvious? Or was I indeed brilliant by accident? I would far rather be brilliant on purpose, of course, but I will take what I can get.
Even more confusing are those moments when some innocuous statement lacking sufficient acid, as far as I could see, to make anyone bubble over, excites Vesuvian pyrotechnics. That really leaves me shaking my head. What was THAT about?
I've seen a confused, dazed look on the faces of celebrities who stumbled into some cultural mine field. Their stunned expressions make me think there must have been times I looked exactly like that. Certainly I have felt like they looked.
It was painful watching a panicked, shell-shocked Paula Deen as she floundered about looking like --well-- a flounder on the deck of a fishing boat. I could tell what she was thinking; the next thing I say will surely make it all right again. It didn't.
In Deen’s case the roadside bomb was a contemporary cultural hot button, so hot that the third degree burns on the face of her stellar career may well prove disfiguring. Surely the catastrophe was entirely predictable. So predictable that one marvels she couldn't see it coming. There are topics so rife with risk that wise communicators, especially TV chefs whose accents drip magnolia in the moonlight, should avoid them at all costs.
The opposite risk, of course, is falling heir to the nauseating plasticity of vapid politicians. Hardly anything is more unpalatable than the bland, fear-laden gruel of modern correctness.
On the other hand, hardly anything can do more damage than ill-chosen words tossed carelessly into the face of the adverse winds of merciless contemporary culture. Step on any land mine and it will do damage. Step on the wrong land mine and it can be fatal.
Where is the balance? Can communicators avoid the paranoid chalkiness of processed speech carefully fed through the PC spell check? Can they likewise keep from blowing themselves off the planet?
The key is found in a genuine concern for the feelings others. Constantly afraid of damaging their career, some master the dubious art of saying nothing wonderfully. That hardly speaks of genuine love for others. On the other hand, mindless of the feelings of others one can become that boorish lout everyone dreads to take the microphone. That is self-absorbed and callous.
Great leaders, leaders such as St. Paul, genuinely care about the feelings of others. They do not want to be the bull in everyone else's china shop, plunging from one hurtful crash to another. Neither do they wish to spend their lives fearfully weighing every syllable. The answer is not in being more correct but in being more loving. (I Cor.13) St. Paul never pulled his punches and controversy dogged him, but love was in his heart.
Every communicator will eventually say something untoward. When you do, apologize quickly and move on. I once referred jokingly to the balcony seats where I was preaching as the "cheap seats." I was stunned that someone sitting there was offended. Frankly, it seemed petty and quibbling.
However, I apologized and never used the phrase again in that place. It didn't hurt me to apologize even though I thought the expressed offense silly and nitpicking. Also it was perhaps somehow genuinely hurtful to that person. Besides, "cheap seats" was not an indispensable phrase. I discovered I could say all I needed to say without ever using it.
One other thing that needs saying; perhaps Paula Deen was other than prudent, even way to the right of loving in saying the things she did. And her apologies were certainly not well crafted. But what about all those who were so horribly offended? Theirs also is a position that needs some thinking through. The next time you tell a speaker, "you offended me" remember that St. Paul says love is not easily offended. Probably the offensive speaker needs more love. Just as likely the easily offended and the frequently offended need to contemplate their own lack of love. Re-read I Cor. 13, especially verse 5. Check out what St. Paul has to say about taking offense.
The short of it is this. Love will help me be less offensive and to genuinely apologize when I am. Love will also help me not to be so easily offended and to forgive when I am.