of Dr. Steven L. Berg

What’s in a Word?

After publishing “Civility and Chuck Colson,” I received a message from Dr. Glenn S. Sunshine concerning a section in which I was critical of Mr. Colson’s understanding of Eastern religions.  After reading Dr. Sunshine’s note, I realized that I had made a serious error in my blog entry.  I wrote that Mr. Colson had “misrepresented” some non-Christian theologies.  It is true that Colson gave some false and misleading information, and I could find dictionary definitions to support my claim.  However, misrepresentation has the connotation of deceit; that the individual is deliberately distorting the truth.  Although Mr. Colson is in error on some of his points, I do not truly believe that he “misrepresented” anything.  What he “presented” was in error, but there was no intent to deceive.

I changed the word “misrepresented” in my essay to “presented.”  It is just one word, but the meaning of the sentence is dramatically altered because of it.  I like engaging Mr. Colson in my classroom because I respect him as someone who takes a thoughtful approach to serious issues.  While I think it is fair to quibble with some of his premises, he clearly lays out the foundation on which he builds his arguments. He is worth listening to because he does not try to misrepresent other people’s positions in order to strengthen his own.

After I posted in Facebook that I had made the change in words, Dr. Sunshine commented, “Integrity and consideration are also qualities in short supply these days. You have my thanks and appreciation.”

Unfortunately, in the 24 hour news cycle, we do see a lack of integrity and consideration.  People deliberately misrepresent each others’ positions in order to score political points.  Or people will jump on a single word that was not well chosen as a way to launch an ad hominem attack.  Worse yet, when I read comments published to articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, the same lack of integrity and lack of consideration can be found.  As academics, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of logical discourse.  Yet, too often, we promote a culture of hostility rather than one of compassion and understanding.

Dr. Sunshine could have gone into attack mode and charged me with all sorts of unscrupulousness for suggesting that Ms. Colson deliberately distorts the truth when he speaks.  Instead, he thanked me for my article and then wrote:

In terms of his understanding of Eastern religion, he is still learning–another thing I appreciate about him. He’s considered by many to be an expert on a lot of different things, including worldview, yet he knows his limits and asks for corrections in his thinking and incorporates them into his presentations when he knows he’s on shaky ground. I don’t know many people at his level of influence who do that. But regardless, thank you for encouraging civility. It’s a tough sell these days.

Even if Dr. Sunshine had not written in the tone of the gentleman he is, I still would have clarified my poor choice of words.  But it is so much easier to engage with someone who is interested in clarifying understanding than in trumping his opponent.  In fact, people who happen to disagree on certain issues need not become opponents if both act with compassion.

There is enough conflict in the world today that we do not need to spend time manufacturing conflict when it is not intended.  Dr. Sunshine did not assume ill intent and he gave me the opportunity to publish a correction.  It is too bad that more of us do not take the same approach in dealing with others.

Photo Caption:  Glenn S. Sunshine (left), Charles W. Colson (right)

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