Benefit of the doubt

With a medium as susceptible to miscommunication as Twitter, aren’t we under some obligation to give authors some measure of benefit of the doubt?

I can’t help but feel as though it takes willful cynicism to read the phrasing of the following tweet as conveying triumph about the end of racism. In instances such as this, for which meaning can just as permissibly be read in the past tense as in the present, I hope readers would extend me the courtesy of, to borrow from Wikipedia, “a favorable judgment in the absence of full evidence” about my intentions. The process — ending racism — needn’t have been completed for Parks’ contribution to warrant remembrance.

Yes, the author has re-written the tweet, as is appropriate when meaning can be easily clarified. But the original wording is hardly grounds for the imbroglio it precipitated. If you’re looking for racism in Republican rhetoric, there’s no need to resort to equivocal tweets like this.

44 thoughts on “Benefit of the doubt”

  1. So much of “news” is a hungry engine that requires an “outrage” a day to keep running.

    1. Yes, exactly.

      Very little of what makes the news actually matters 24 hours later, and almost none of it matters a month later.

      1. It’s well to remember where we once were and how things have melodramatically improved…

        Watching the news, I was struck by a negative capacity in the coverage and reaction - how little sense there was of efforts to blame either Castro or the Soviet Union, either in a moral sense or in a more concrete sense of having organized the murder of an American President. Perhaps this was the overwhelmingness of the event itself, the knowledge of the reality of the Cold War and the inability to go off half-cocked or perhaps it was the more channeled, moderated news environment. There were two and a half television networks and lots of daily papers. No Internet, no talk TV, no competing cable nets. I don’t have an answer. But it stands out to me as a palpable difference with our own time how ‘calmly’, for lack of a better word, this news was received. Of course, one of the mysteries and confounding realities is that there was a real concern about violence and threats to Kennedy’s life. But it was of extremism from the right.

        How much climate denialism do you think would exist now if we had two-and-a-half networks and Walter Cronkite again?
        My answer: None. We’d be well on a way to repair (see ozone hole).

        It’s a paradox: The more main voices a democracy permits in its day-to-day conversations the less effective it becomes.

        1. I think this is mistaken. The 60s and 70s were a time when the voices that dominated major media happened to be somewhere in the centrist-to-liberal section of the gamut. If you look back to the Hearst days, in contrast, the voices that dominated the media were pretty far right. We do pretty much have two and a half networks again, and one of them is Fox.

          1. That’s true. And plenty of leaded gasoline denialism before that too:


            But that will be with us so long as we have people who willfully pledge their integrity to that which enriches them.
            Which basically means forever…

            My point is that Democracy is guided by conversations.
            And that when there were only a few conversations we were perhaps better off.

            This is so for two reasons:

            1) The Fairness Doctrine was in effect.
            2) When you only have two and a half networks everyone aims for the sweet spot (the political middle). That’s where the bucks are.

            Here from Cronkite’s autobiography is a look at the spirit of those times:

            …while it is true that a handful of people decided what would be on the three networks news broadcasts each evening, there wasn’t the slightest-not the slightest-consultation among them. Indeed, their intense rivalry prescribed just the opposite.

            I would argue that points 1 and 2 and their intense rivalry forced the few networks to a fair and balanced broadcast.

            On the other hand…

            The intense competition today is aimed at fractured markets.
            Thus Rush Limbaugh and Hannity compete against other right wing voices for that market.
            The result is an intense appeal, not to fairness, but to who can package the best bile…
            And this, more than anything, causes the Overton Window to shift ever more to the extremes.

  2. If this was coming from someone who deserved the benefit of the doubt, I’d offer it, but the Republican Party is as steeped in racism denial as it is in climate change denial.

    The partisan majority of the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the voting rights act based on the theory that voting discrimination isn’t - even without legal prohibitions - a meaningful problem.

    I’m truly surprised that the RNC bothered to retract. When is the last time a prominent conservative noticed racism in any form - other than against white people? The Republican Party is the party of anti-anti-racism, and for people to notice that fact - even if this was a slip-up on the part of the RNC - doesn’t strike me as inappropriate.

    1. Thank you for proving my point so wonderfully.

      While I won’t dispute that the Republican Party is the party of racism denial, it takes willful cynicism to read this tweet as evidence of such. Neither do we know that the author of the tweet held the same intentions as were held by five Supreme Court Justices, nor is this tweet evidence of “racism denial” when it could easily have been read differently — as gratitude for someone’s contribution to an ongoing struggle.

      There was no retraction. Nor need there have been one. There was a supplementary tweet, intended for clarification.

      Twitter is, at root, a medium that constrains expression. 140 characters makes clarity difficult. Even if someone slips up — which I don’t think anyone did — they deserve a bit of slack. After all, like I said, the catalog of racist comments coming from the Republican Party is replete with instances less equivocal than this. Going after this tweet seems like clutching at straws.

      1. I’m sorry, but I disagree. As you say, one of the Republican Party’s key messages to its supporters is that Racism Is Over. They say this in order to denigrate those who still complain about ongoing racism and the lingering effects of previous racism, and in order to encourage resentment among their supporters, who feel that minorities are unfairly receiving special treatment. So: when they release a message like this, that just happens to state that Racism Is Over, it’s not an isolated incident, it can’t be presumed to be an inartful statement lauding Ms. Parks efforts in the struggle to end racism. At the very least, you have to ask whether it was a Freudian slip: whether they’ve lied so many times that Racism Is Over that they used the mendacious phrase again when they meant instead to say that she worked to end racism.

      2. A similar tweet which did not reference Rosa Parks (or some other emotionally powerful civil rights figure) would have a much better chance of slipping by. I can’t be the only one who is particularly sensitive to misinformation stapled onto one of the dead.

        As to the formal constraints of Twitter, the tweet is quite short. There would have been no space issue in changing “ending” to “fighting” (a two character addition). That’s a casual suggestion given with virtually no consideration. I’m sure there are better edits available. This is what poets, editors, and ad copy writers do all the time. Were I this cat’s editor, I might have suggested that calling Rosa Parks’ sitting down her “bold stand” was too cute in context, too. (I like the idea in principle. You could develop a really good riff off the tension between taking a seat and taking a stand. I bet there are dozens of sermons which have done exactly that. But to just drop it in and leave it? Not such good writing, so leave it out of this here tweet.)

        (I have no idea what the author of the tweet in question thinks or believes. This is PR and the author’s heart is not in question.)

        But yeah, this is a very minor outrage. One in a series, collect them all. It’s worth noting, and counting, and then passing by. There will be another one along shortly, a benefit of having a certain sort of opponent.

        1. While I won’t dispute that the Republican Party is the party of racism denial, it takes willful cynicism to read this tweet as evidence of such.

          I think it takes a quite ordinary, obvious and necessary level of cynicism.

          We have:
          -The Republican Party is the party of racism denial
          -This tweet is by the official organ of the Republican Party
          -This tweet, if read literally, engages in racism denial
          -Therefore, it’s offensive to suggest that the tweeter is engaged in racism denial.

          Even taken in the manner you suggest, Republican congratulation of Rosa Parks is intended as self-congratulation and it’s offensive. Context matters. How is this, from from the RNC’s full statement, anything other than grotesque, given the modern context in which it is delivered?

          “We remember and honor Rosa Parks today for the role she played in fighting racism and ending segregation. At the same time we rededicate ourselves to the causes of justice and equal opportunity.”

          Yeah, right.

          Neither do we know that the author of the tweet held the same intentions as were held by five Supreme Court Justices

          The author of this tweet, the RNC, has been and will continue to be in the forefront of those trying to deny voting rights. The RNC would find it absurd to suggest that it doesn’t share the views of those five justices in this case.

          1. I dispute that this tweet, “if read literally, engages in racism denial.” I therefore dispute the reasoning that follows.

            I also dispute that Republican congratulation of Rosa Parks is intended as self-congratulation. The commenter to whom you have replied, John A Arkansawyer, suggested replacing “ending” with “fighting” exactly as appears in the quotation you’ve provided, and you still find the wording “grotesque”.

            You’ve demonstrated that you’re not willing to extend the author of the tweet the benefit of the doubt. Fine, I’m not going to convince you that you should, because you’re perfectly content to read malicious intent into what they write. You’ve conceded that you’re being cynical (“necessar[il]y” so, no less). I get the sense we’re just going to go round in circles if we continue.

      3. Plainly read, it promotes the mainstream Conservative view that racism is entirely a thing of the past. There’s nothing equivocal about it. The best you could say about it may have been an error-that the writer carelessly stated-quite plainly-something she didn’t actually intend to state.

        Given the Republican party’s history of precisely such statements, this po-faced insistence that they’re owed the benefit of the doubt here is downright Slate-worthy.

  3. Melisa Harris-Perry (sp?) always quotes her father’s repeated message to her, “The struggle continues.” Life is never resolved, the struggle continues.

  4. Racism could be over…except for the fact that so many refuse to believe it exists in the first place.

    Like with alcoholism and other abuse disorders, the first step to recovery (no, I am not a fan of 12 step programs, but you have to start somewhere) is to admit you have a problem. Since most Republicans can’t even make it to Step 1, there’s little hope of any recovery from the sort of endemic racism that unthinkingly produced the original tweet.

  5. Johann, I’m afraid you’ve put me in the position of agreeing with your general proposition and disagreeing on this instance. Yes, Twitter’s format lets people go off without thinking. But no, in this instance of corporate communication, that’s not close to being at issue. Whatever RNC corporate flak- whether high-priced PR-firm big-brain or work-for-free millennial intern- came up with this went to the trouble of downloading the image, maybe even of editing it, had looked up the anniversary. Somebody with authority in the RNC approved it. It went out in the RNC’s feed. Not that they labored over it until they were drenched with intellectual sweat, but this was no off-the-cuff blast. It was meant to communicate the party’s official position. Which, as so many have pointed out, is racism denial. They throw out Lincoln’s name the same way.

    I have to add that I don’t see any real possibility of confusion about timing- whether the claim is about racism having ended, or being in the process of ending. It reads, to me at least, as unequivocally claiming that it’s a thing of the past. And I thought that on first seeing it, _before_ I knew who posted it.

    So I think it was willfully written that way, and making fun of it seems to me the right kind of response. The reactions linked to are, as far as I can tell, all or almost all of that tenor, so I think they’re proportionate. If there are a lot of them, well, Twitter is an individual platform.

    1. Huh. “Unequivocally”, you say? I’m surprised, and I don’t agree, but ok. We just have different readings.

      It seems my disagreement with the other commenters thus far is that they recognize the tweet is equivocal, and aren’t willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. If your objection is farther upstream, in thinking that there’s only one interpretation of the tweet, then I can see I won’t be able to make much progress here. I’ll move along…

      But thank you for your comment.

      1. Not to put words in their mouths, but I think Warren Terra and John Arkansawyer read it the same way. I’d infer that Fred and Mike do too. Probably Barry.

        In general, I don’t think that commenters who engage the question whether the RNC deserves the benefit of any doubt are agreeing that the wording is equivocal. That’s a separate question and one that few of us have directly addressed. Most seem to be responding to a question something like, “if there was any doubt, would the RNC deserve to get the benefit of it?” In other words, responding- admittedly somewhat ad hominem- to the headline more than to the wording of the original tweet.

        Of course, ymmv, and seems to, which I’m sorry about.

      2. It seems my disagreement with the other commenters thus far is that they recognize the tweet is equivocal, and aren’t willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.

        This seems to be based on a careless reading of the comments here. At a minimum, you should re-read your own comment you made nine minutes prior to this one. I prefer my word “literally” to Altoid’s “unequivocally,” in part because I’m willing to grant the possibility that it was simply a thoughtless error, but Altoid and I are clearly both talking about the same thing. And the RNC said what it said.

        I characterized the RNC’s later tweet as a “retraction,” while you say it was no such thing - the tweet was merely “rewritten.” This distinction - like the literal-unequivocal distinction - seems either careless or tendentious. Here’s the actual content of the second tweet:

        Previous tweet should have read “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in fighting to end racism.”

        I will give the RNC this much credit: When faced with evidence that it hadn’t used due care in expressing itself, it had the maturity to rewrite.

      3. Speaking for my self only, I don’t recognize that the “tweet” is in any way equivocal. I have argued below that the choice of language is absolutely consistent with a pattern going back to the Reagan administration. Others have made similar critiques.

        I do not see an unwillingness on the part of commenters here to give the GOP the benefit of the doubt for language which they agree is equivocal. I see one group who argues that because of their history of bad faith the GOP has forfeited any good will or benefit of the doubt that might ordinary be accorded to a speaker under these circumstances regardless of whether the language is equivocal. But I see no one in this group who is conceding that the language is in any way equivocal; they do not concede that the language is equivocal but argue instead that it is irrelevant in light of the GOP’s history.

        The other group of commenters consists of people like myself who argue that the “tweet” is, in fact, an unequivocal statement about their political agenda and race relations and condemn the Republicans accordingly.

        I do not see any commenters who agree that the language is equivocal but refuse to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt anyway.

  6. Whatever RNC corporate flak The word wanted here, meaning publicity agent or the like, is flack, origin unknown. Flak refers to anti-aircraft guns or fire, and is contracted in the usual German way from Fliegerabwehrkanone.

    On the substance of this thread, I find it kind of hard to imagine caring.

  7. From Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money (

    “The answer to what she thinks is a rhetorical question is that, of course, is that the idea that racism is a thing of the past that we once had to worry about but no longer have to is a very real and very pernicious feature of American political discourse and practice. And while yes, there are some cases (like the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs) in which Both Sides in fact Do It, this lie is much more embedded within the Republican Party. The Supreme Court making up extraconstitutional limits on the congressional power to enforce the 15th Amendment because racism just isn’t the issue it used to be is a rather powerful example. And Republicans wanted the green light for a reason: to enact vote suppression measures that aren’t even nominally connected to imaginary “vote fraud” but are solely means of making it more difficult for African-Americans to vote. The embrace of vote suppression is an almost exclusively Republican phenomenon and the RNC’s tweet accurately reflects the ethos.

    So there’s perfectly good reason why the RNC’s tweet attracted attention. The idea that racism ended permanently when a few heroic individuals who conservatives can now support decades after the fact in highly sanitized versions — so that the only remaining racism is liberal opposition to racism — is a fundamental principle of the contemporary Republican Party. “

    1. This is a preaching to the choir issue. If your purpose is to fire up your readers and get an “amen”, imagined slights and very uncharitably interpreted quips work great-Rush Limbaugh has made a huge career out of it after all. If your purpose is to engage people who plausibly might agree with you in some broad sense, but currently don’t, this kind of thing is more likely to drive your audience the other way in a “the best they could come up with is an obvious whine” kind of way. (Again, the typical non choir response to Rush Limbaugh).

      This seems to be a case of not realizing how big the choir is (echo chamber). If 80% of the US population already agreed with you it might be norms enforcing in a five minute hate fashion.

      There are plenty of cases of Republicans behaving very badly on race. You only have so many chances to get your message across. This one is a waste.

      1. And on ten minutes reflection, if you were to tell me that the Orwell reference would more likely turn people who might be likely to agree with me off than be useful shorthand (as well as exposing that I forgot it was a 2 minute hate), you might be right. I could have said “If 80% of the US population already agreed with you it might be norms enforcing” and left it at that. Because tone really is important, so choosing your examples and metaphors poorly can hurt the way your argument is received even if the underlying argument is sound.

      1. No, a preponderance of the evidence suffices. “All the evidence” is an impossible standard. By any reasonable yardstick, the Republicans have used up their benefit of the doubt on this issue. They have a large debt of doubt to be worked off before they can say anything at all about racism without it being rejected as malicious nonsense.

        And I disagree most stringently with your sanctimonious dismissal of my immediate, visceral reaction to the tweet: that wasn’t “willful cynicism.”

      2. I think we have all the evidence we need. Easily enough to support the conclusion being drawn about the “tweeter’s” bad faith and more than enough to justify not giving him the benefit of the doubt. Since you evidently support the linguistic and historical analysis being advanced by the critics, I don’t know what more evidence you think might exist or be needed.

  8. The only way I can accept that Priebus’s remarks are NOT willful cynicism is by positing that they are f’ing clueless.
    And that gets old after a while, too. Romney/47%: f’ing clueless. GOP on rape: f’ing clueless. D’Souza on Trayvon in the WH: f’ing clueless.

    But I doubt Koehler will accept my take either. But, JK, keeping holding out for ALL the evidence.
    Eventually I’m going to conclude that you are….well, you know (I hope).

    1. Quite to the contrary.

      Romney on the 47% gaffe: elitist scumbag.
      GOP on rape: malignant negligence.
      D’Souza: misguided, sure, but a bigot all the same.

      Those seemed unequivocal in their bigotry, in a way that the tweet that formed the basis for this post did not. When I ask for all the evidence, I mean evidence to support an inference for a specific piece of text or speech. I don’t require an epistemic impossibility. I just want to know whether racism was intended with the tweet, and if the intention is ambiguous, then I hope some benefit of the doubt is extended.

      I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re eventually going to conclude about me. I imagine it’s pretty unsavoury, though, given that people seem to think I’ve been sanctimonious (for which I sincerely do apologise).

      1. Obviously, I agree with the many other commentators here who argue that the GOP long ago proved themselves undeserving of being given the benefit of the doubt. But the key point in response to your question is that it is clearly important to Republicans to argue that it is liberals who are the only racists and, similarly, it is they and not minorities who today suffer the burden of institutionalized racism. They have been very much enamored of exactly the language used in this “tweet” and have been unceasing in using it because they feel that this specific type of wording allows them to convey a feeling that racism is over and, equally, of their own victimhood.

        A similar linguistic strategy can be seen in the Republican’s deliberate and relentless use of the term “Democrat Party” to describe the Democratic Party (to which I belong) in a way that Republicans feel tends to denigrate and delegitimize it. I do not see how you can fail to recognize that the GOP’s choice of words was surely quite deliberate, just as their use of the term “Democrat Party” is purposeful.

        I think you have bent over so far backwards in giving the GOP the benefit of the doubt that you have simply fallen over. There is no ambiguity here. The Republicans have consistently used this same language and linguistic strategy when speaking about race in every other forum and context imaginable. They have consistently sought to convey the message about the “end of racism—except, of course, for that directed at conservatives, who are the real victims” and they seem to feel that by casually but constantly interjecting this claim into every public dialogue at every possible opportunity it will eventually be taken for granted and will become the new context for talking about race. Why should “tweets” be given a pass, particularly since (as many others have pointed out)the limitations on space didn’t come into play at all? (As the revised “tweet” demonstrates).

        Surely this is the prism through which the critics are viewing this “tweet”. Are we mistaken in our assumption that language which is carefully shaped in every other medium and context and has been a key element of the Republican’s political messaging for many years should not have a meaning attributed to it that is consistent with their historical use of language?

        This has been going on since at least the Reagan administration. Is there a point at which you might feel the Republicans mean exactly what they say and will no longer be entitled to benefit of the doubt?

        1. If one’s going to mention deliberate usage of language by the Republican Party, I think you have to bring up Newt Gingrich’s “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”. The idea that there are people in the RNC deliberately crafting messages (including possibly this one) to insinuate that racism is a problem of the past is not anywhere near as far-fetched as Johann seems to believe.

  9. Look, people. I refuse to get upset about anything someone said on Twitter. Twitter is for traffic jams and updates during power outages. Not for real news or conversation.

    Same with Youboobtube. No, I am not going to watch your video, unless you put your words to music, and probably not even then.

    1. Now that’s a shame. You had a perfectly good chance there to be the first person to ever follow “Look, people” with something worth reading, and you went and blew it.

  10. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t more than a few years ago that the GOP was trashing Rosa Parks as a commie civil rights activist, along with MLK. Now that they are doing “outreach” they can rewrite history and embrace the two.

  11. Johann’s reaction to the RNC tweet is exemplary of our modern tolerance for the intolerant. We are admonished that we can’t know what’s in people’s hearts, so when Oprah notices that some of the animus aimed at Obama is a result of racism, she is vilified. When people take political positions whose impact is racist, or say things that are dismissive of racism as a problem, we can’t suggest that these behaviors are racist because we have an obligation as decent people to offer the benefit of the doubt.

    Ultimately, that sort of thinking leads you here, where someone can not only claim that blacks are intellectually inferior, but can actually burn a cross and be let off the hook because, well, he says that in his heart he’s not a racist. Decent people everywhere will accept this, because name-calling is just rude.

    1. I don’t think I have done anything analogous to “vilification”. And while I find the contention that I’m on the track to being like Charles Murray rather amusing, I don’t take especially kindly to the suggestion that I’m even on the same spectrum as those who think that cross burning is excusable. In both the post and in my subsequent comments I have reiterated that I’m all about leveling a charge of racism when it’s unambiguous, which cross burning clearly is. And while you believe the tweet is unambiguous in meaning, I believe to the contrary.

      I have stated my position, and you disagree with it. That’s fine, and I’m (sincerely) grateful for your contributions, because they truly have advanced my thinking. Thank you for that.

      You also didn’t like my tone. I am sorry if I phrase things offensively, because that is not my intention. However, I am now fed up with your tone, so I’m calling an end to this. I’m not going to let you put me in the camp of people who think it’s ok for others to call black people intellectually inferior.

      Keep writing to your heart’s content, but I’m done here.

      1. It’s interesting what things you regard as ambiguous, and what things you choose to misinterpret entirely.

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