Stuck on Stupid

Here we go again.

The hyper-media -- the 24/7 cable television added to the blogosphere added to the mainstream media, with time to fill during the summer doldrums -- has misread a sentence and used it to pump up the volume on an emotional issue. At the end of a press conference dedicated to health care, President Obama answered a question about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates.

He made several points, including the following: "I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that's just a fact."

Hermeneutics 101. Understanding and meaning happen at the intersection of purportive and importive intentionalities. Every text has at least two dimensions of meaning: what the author/speaker intends as his/her purpose and what the reader/listener deems as important. More often than not the two do not intersect. Very often, that they do not intersect causes no harm; the various interpretations of a text adds texture, richness, and layers of meaning. Multiple meanings can lead to new understandings that help us ask better questions and find better answers. However, sometimes the misreading is pernicious.

In this case, the hyper-media got stuck on the word "stupid." Was this an insult to all law enforcement? Let us look at that clause of the sentence in its entirety and think how the subject changes when we understand that the president's purpose was to say something about a man being arrested in his own home when he was not committing any crime. If this was the president's intent, then the discourse surrounding his comments has not begun to help us to know what are our rights and responsibilities when the police come to our door. What are the parameters of our freedoms in this regard?

Further, as participants in the public discourse, we need to be wise and responsible regarding our own participation. The gospel according to the rap group Public Enemy: "Don't believe the hype." We ought to always ask: "What else does the text say?"

Had the president used another word, we would not be having this conversation. It is a valuable conversation if it allows us to think critically about police/community relations, about the real, seorius, and ongoing problem of racial profiling, and if we learn more about our rights as citizens. It is a useless conversation if we stay stuck on stupid and the conversation generates more heat than light, where it becomes a divisive distraction from the fact that we all have to interact with the police and that we all need a better health-care system.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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