Have you heard Todd Akin’s apology ad? The first time that I heard it I nearly laughed out loud at the last line; “The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.”
Yes. You are right, Rep. Akin. The mistake you made was in the words you said. Had you not said them, you would not be in this pickle. Powerful insight, Captain Obvious.
Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth”. I think it might be more accurate to say that a gaffe is when a politician reveals the truth. The mask slips, the filter breaks, and we catch a glimpse of the real person behind the crafted image. Sometimes the result is just buffoonery. Joe Biden is the reigning king of the gaffes, but most of them are less disastrous than entertaining. Crazy Uncle Joe, unwittingly livening up the family gatherings. The same is true for many of George Bush’s flubs. They don’t reveal unseemly character as much as unfamiliarity with his mother tongue.
It’s hard to draw a line between “Oops! Did he really say that?” and “That was an iceberg. You’re going down.” Todd Akin, however, hit an iceberg. His gaffe exposed ideas about rape – and female anatomy – that are genuinely alarming to many. It was an off-the-cuff response to a question, and sure enough, “the mistake was in the words” he said.
There’s a lot of that going around. A couple of months ago I wrote a post on words like “conquest” and “colonize” being used to describe sexual intercourse. I was not alone in finding those words problematic. The blogger who set off the meltdown spent a great deal of time saying, “But what I meant was…” Whatever he meant, his mistake was in the words he said (or wrote, in this case). Just this week I ran across a clip of Pat Robertson, offering his thoughts on adoption. Robertson’s filter seems to have been permanently disabled, and the things that are getting through make even his supporters cringe. The mistakes are in the words he says.
But isn’t that an inadequate defense, when you’ve said something harmful? It makes about as much sense as “The mistake was in the punch I threw, not in the heart I hold.” It’s a bit like Ricky Bobby’s argument that any insult is permissible, as long it’s preceded by “with all due respect”. I’m sure Akin’s apology is genuine but there’s no coming back from what he said.
I, too, have made mistakes in the words I’ve said. Especially in moments of anger my own mask has slipped and my carefully crafted image has gone right out the window. In fact, this week I was accused of “piling on an old man” (Pat Robertson) and fueling an “angry mob” mentality. The person who said it was probably correct. I’m very clumsy at balancing speaking truth to power with speaking the truth in love. I often fall into fits of apoplexy and wind up feeling not righteously satisfied, but rightly embarrassed. Like Akin and others before him, I don’t want to be judged by the worst of my words, and so I deny that they reveal my true character.
Jesus would have none of that.
“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:34-37)
Jesus knew that it’s in our off-the-cuff, unfiltered speech that our character is revealed. Not just politicians and preachers, but all of us construct our images before the world, trying to hide any ugliness that lies beneath the surface. And then our tongues trip us up. Truth will out.
What I am trying to do, when I hit my own icebergs, is to, firstly, close my mouth. When we are challenged on what we’ve said, most of us go into code-red self defense. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was….you’re twisting my words….why are you deliberately misunderstanding me? I can’t help it if you’re easily offended. I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive. But what about last week when you said _____________?” We’ve all seen this happen, haven’t we? When public figures are caught in a damaging gaffe they spin and spin and spin and counter-attack, and maybe, if none of that works, they finally offer something that sounds like a genuine apology.
How much better if I would stop talking, listen, humble myself, and start with a real apology. And perhaps I go on to explain myself better, or perhaps I just quiet down for a while. I often remind myself of a verse from Proverbs 10: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”
Politicians, pastors and celebrities have chosen to live their lives in public. So have bloggers, for that matter. By our words we are justified, and by our words we are condemned. The reality, though, is that we will all have gaffes now and then – flubs, blunders, or titanic disasters. Perhaps the measure of our character is not just in the words we say, but in what we do next.
CORRECTION: A reader has pointed out that “The mistake was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold” was not, in fact, the last line of Rep. Akin’s apology ad. It was the next of the last line, followed by “I ask your forgiveness.” Sorry for the carelessness on my part. Some might find my mistake ironic, given the subject of the post….I just have to find it embarrassing.