It happens all the time. A phrase of ours is taken out of context, the original meaning is lost, and it sounds terrible. The words are used as evidence against our character and our point of view. Sometimes the efforts against us are successful, and we lose good reputation, supporters, and sometimes our jobs.

How we too often react:

  1. Attacking the accusers. Often the accusers understand the context and know the true meaning of our words. The accusers are not upset at what we said, they are gleeful that they can use something that we said against us. They are being dishonest and manipulative. The temptation is to respond by calling them out. The problem is that they are already our opponents. It will seem like we are attacking them because we are against them, not because they are dishonest. People who are not sure whom to believe can see that we did actually say the words. Getting defensive does not help.
  2. Defending our words. Once we put the effort into making a statement we want to stand behind what we say. When we feel our words are being attacked, we want to defend them. We want to show that what we said was not wrong. If people would look at the context and the intent, they would see the true meaning. The problem is that when our words are being misconstrued, our words are not being attacked, we are. Our own words our being used as a weapon against us. When we try to defend these words, we are just making them into better weapons.
  3. Invoke free speech. We feel like we are being attacked for stating our opinion. People should have the right to speak their minds without their words being misconstrued. We want to stand up for free speech and open debate. The problem is that free speech is not free of consequences. Our words can carry our meaning and express our values well and be persuasive. On the other hand, our words can be misunderstood and be hurtful. We should not stand for the freedom to hurt and offend, especially when that is not our intent.

How we should react:

  1. Disavow the words. We need to remember that our words are not being attacked. We are. We need to destroy the words that are being used as weapon against us. The words were a stupid mistake. We said them in error. They are hurtful. They do not express our views. We do not stand by these words. If people are throwing mud against our words, we should distance ourselves from them.
  2. Take responsibility. Apologize for causing hurt. When we speak or write, we want our words to be powerful. We want to be noticed and we want to be persuasive. Sometimes that causes us to use words that can be misconstrued out of context to be hateful and hurtful when that is not our intent. We need to be careful. We should take responsibility when we say something that sounds bad, even when we feel our opponents our twisting our words on purpose. It would be better if we had used a phrase that was not so easily twisted. Apologies are very inexpensive and make it much harder for people who want us to look bad.
  3. Demonstrate our true intent. When we say something hurtful,
    people do not get upset because of the actual injury. They get upset because they feel that it was our intention to hurt them. This puts us in the category of “enemy.” We need to demonstrate that we never intended to hurt. The best way is to show that we want to help. Words can hurt, but actions speak louder than words. Show that our actions are incompatible with the misconstrued meaning of our words. Be positive. If our words our misconstrued to be discriminatory against a group, show how we have worked for the benefit of that group. We can even make a contribution to an organization fighting discrimination of the group. That can change a potential enemy to a supportive friend.

Three recent examples are illustrative.

Steven Salaita accepted a tenured professorship last year in Native
American Studies at the University of Illinois. He had his job offer
cancelled because some contended that his Twitter comments promoted hate, violence, and anti-Semitism. He tweeted: “Zionists:
transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something
honorable since 1948.” I have reviewed several interviews with Salaita and have spoken to him personally. Although I strongly disagree with his political views, he is not an anti-semite. But you would not know that from the way he has defended his remarks. He has attacked his accusers for using “civility” as an excuse to stifle his viewpoint. He has defended his remarks as a strong and angry response to an abhorrent situation, the war and loss of life in Gaza. He is taking to the courts to defend his comments as an issue of free speech. None of this addresses the issue of whether his views are anti-semitic. I suggested a different approach. I proposed that he disavow all tweets viewed as demeaning and abusive, and agree to the principles of free speech and discourse with respect for all points of view as elucidated in Chancellor Wise’s statement “The Principles on Which We Stand.” In return Salaita would receive a reinstated job offer and a financial settlement to cover his legal fees and other expenses. This would be a face-saving settlement that avoids the political issues and reaffirms the right to free speech.

Middle East scholar and Professor of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University,
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, when asked how Islamic terrorists could be
stopped, replied “the only thing that deters them is if they know that
their sister or their mother will be raped.” Kedar is not a proponent
of the use of rape as anti-terrorism, and he said that elsewhere in
the interview. But you would not know that from the way his remarks
have been defended. A statement from Bar Ilan University explains
Kedar “did not call and is not calling to fight terror except by legal
and moral means.” It also said Kedar “wanted to illustrate that there
is no means of deterring suicide bombers, and using hyperbole, he gave
the rape of women as an example.” His words should not be explained and defended. This explanation does nothing to address the concerns of feminists who stated his words “grant legitimacy to Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Israeli civilians to commit rape, and endanger both Israeli and Palestinian women.” Kedar should have disavowed his statement. He should have apologized for giving an answer which could be construed as supporting rape. He should have demonstrated his concern and advocacy for women’s rights. A contribution in support for rape crisis centers and women’s shelters would have also demonstrated his good intentions.

A much better response was seen by Vice President Biden. When
speaking to the Legal Services Corporation about bad loans and
foreclosures suffered by families of military personnel, he referred
to “these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while
overseas.” This is a reference to Shylock, the blatantly anti-Semitic
characterization of the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s Merchant
of Venice. When Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League criticized
his remarks, Biden did not attack his accuser or try to defend his
remarks. He agreed with the criticism and demonstrated positively his
true feelings.

 Abe Foxman has been a friend and advisor of mine for
a long time. He’s correct, it was a poor choice of words, particularly as he said coming from ‘someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden.’  He’s right.”

This is the best way to respond when our words are misconstrued. Not
to defend our remarks and attack the accuser, but to disavow the
remark, admit that it was a poor choice of words, demonstrate our true
good intentions, and move forward.