Causes, particularly causes that are "hot" at the moment, draw passionate supporters, as they should. What supporters of such causes, especially the most passionate among them, often encounter and fail to take as seriously as they aught, is the whole "poster child" problem. As I said in last week's Notebook, it is a flawed strategy to wrap a good cause around an unworthy story.
By plastering the wrong face on the posters, supporters damage their own cause. If the story, whatever the story is, turns out to be different from what was thought at first, the cause can get branded with the negative image. Some years ago, a famous rock star announced he had become a Christian, and many Christians went wild with excitement. Many enthusiastically, and without hesitation trumpeted his "conversion" and used the story in countless sermons. I advised
caution, reminding folks that, even if his conversion turned out to be real, which was doubtful, new converts need time to mature before we plaster their faces on the Christian movement and tout their testimonies. Beyond that, apart from time, how could we verify the story? Did he go to our churches? Had we interviewed him? No. Somebody quoted somebody who quoted somebody who heard him say...
Wait, I say, wait on the Lord.
If Christianity is real, and it certainly is, the faith doesn't need the supposed conversion of a rock star for validation. Is our Christianity so frail that we need stars to endorse Jesus like He was a box of Wheaties? Whose face, after all, goes on the box?
What made me even more concerned was that seemingly many saw the long term risk of embarrassment as insignificant compared to the momentary "pop" of an exciting, big name convert. That being true, I knew that when the rock star's story fizzled, nothing would be learned. Sure enough, some years later a famous author claimed a conversion and wrote a Christian book. The headlong rush to endorse the conversion, the author and the book made me hesitant. Indeed, after that book enjoyed heavy sales, her Christianity just seemed to melt. The rush to seize on a poster child is always proof of immature leadership.
Last week I stirred up some controversy by commenting on the Ferguson riots. Among the points I made was that it is a mistake to wrap an important issue around a weak story. It makes the whole issue seem weak. If the truth turns out not to jive with the first reports, it tends to deaden listeners. Then when a truly important example comes along, it can cause many in the public to say, sure, sure we heard it before and that turned out to be nothing. We are not getting excited about this one.
Take for example, the horrific story of “Jackie" as it appeared in Rolling Stone. The report claimed that this woman was raped at a frat party on the campus of the University of Virginia. This monstrous story became the new poster picture for the very real issue of campus sexual assault. The problem is the woman's story now seems to be unraveling. Rolling Stone is backing away from the story in stages and may soon be forced print an embarrassing retraction of the entire article. The reporter’s job is hanging by a thread.
That sexual assaults happen on college campuses is a reprehensible fact, and it may be far more common than we know. This horrid issue must be addressed and rapists brought to justice. That being case, such an important cause doesn't need false stories to bolster its validity. In fact, such reports hurt the cause. Perhaps they hurt it a great deal and may make it difficult for the next real victim to be believed, get help and find justice.
The worst part of such wrong stories is that there are always demagogues who care nothing for the truth. They believe the end justifies the means. They are more than willing to wring whatever juice they can out of untruths and half truths, then just move on to the next hot story. I actually heard an interview after the Ferguson riot in which it was said, the facts of the Michael Brown case, the actual truth of that sad shooting did not matter. Where are the rioters, looters and outside agitators that made incendiary speeches about a case that was not at all what was first reported? Where are they now? Are they rebuilding the burned stores? They got what they wanted out of a bogus story and moved on to leave Ferguson to dig itself out.
Here is the worst part. It is my observation, not a fact, not secret inside knowledge, just my observation that the sad and totally unnecessary death of Eric Garner in the scuffle with a New York policeman was probably prosecutable. The policeman in that case, while perhaps not guilty of intent, looks to me to be guilty of egregious negligence at the very least, and perhaps even manslaughter.
What one wonders is how tainted that much stronger New York case became with the weakness of the Michael Brown case. I have no way of knowing what that Staten Island grand jury had in their minds and I have not heard the testimony they heard, but I cannot help but wonder if the hysterical and, now debunked, falsehoods in Ferguson hurt the validity of the case in New York. Do the mindless mobs who burned and looted minority-owned businesses in Ferguson speak for those of us concerned about unnecessary police violence? They do not speak for me. Are rioters and anarchists the face of genuine pro-justice concerns? Allowing that to happen will not help, but hurt the cause of justice and race relations. If the story of Jackie and the rape she claimed to endure turns out to be a hoax even in part, will it damage legitimate and much needed anti-rape campaigns?
If that is true, even at all, it cannot help but summon the fear of the unthinkable possibility that some poor girl on the campus at UVA, or anywhere is assaulted and then her story disbelieved because the likes of Rolling Stone put the wrong face on the legitimate cause of stopping campus rape.