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Thursday, July 22, 2010

It's called subreption. In the world of writing, it's considered a crime.

CNN  did some fact-checking in the firing of Shirley Sherrod for her alleged admission that she made a decision about helping a white farmer on a racial basis.  That, of course, turned out not to be true.  What was true is that the video clip which provided the basis for her firing was an exercise in subreption. Someone had lifted a portion of the tape that totally misrepresented and falsified what Ms. Sherrod was talking about, which was confronting racial perceptions and working beyond them.

Subreption as applied to writing refers to quoting or citing sources in a way that conceals the full facts and misrepresents what is being quoted or referenced.  Another technical term for the practice is contextomy. The practice is the taking of someone's  words out of context and making them seem to say something quite different, usually contrary, to what has actually been said.

The term subreption is used more often in the field of communications because it also refers to the false conclusions drawn from the falsifications of someone's words.  It has not been established as of this  writing who did the actual editing of the video of Shirley Sherrod's speech, but Andrew Breibart posted it on his blog site and Fox News circulated it as parties to an act which was intended to discredit the NAACP and portray Ms. Sherrod as practicing racism.  The purveyors of the video clip were incensed that the NAACP passed a resolution asking the tea party movement to  repudiate the racist elements that have used its functions to broadcast their racist messages.  The intention in showing the subrepted clip from Ms. Sherrod's speech was to show an instance where the NAACP and Ms. Sherrod were engaging in black  racism.

In the field of writing and communications in general, people generally think of plagiarism as the unforgivable sin one can commit.  It isn't.  In academics, the worst act is making up or falsifying information.  Falsehoods are poison pills that destroy humans and their institutions.  They make trust and trustworthy communication impossible.   In the past, when we taught students the standards of good writing, we spent quite a bit of time on explaining and warning against plagiarism.  We did not have to warn students about the dangers of making up or misrepresenting information.  They intuitively understood why it is wrong and resented being lectured on something they already knew.  Times have changed.  Misrepresenting information is considered to be smart politics on the blogosphere.  Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado whose case  gained national attention, was fired for misrepresenting information he cited.  Subreption is a way of life for some. 

The matter of  Shirley Sherrod is a prime example of how destructive falsehoods are.  Initially, the Obama administration and the NCAAP took the subrepted clip on its face and, apparently, panicked because it seemed to bear out the charges of reverse racism that the conservative confederacy is launching against them. In drawing the conclusion that Ms. Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer, they also committed an act of subreption.  For a time, the concocted lie worked its intended effect.  Ms. Sherrod was fired.  And the Obama administration showed that it cowers before the invective of the Breitbarts, the Limbaughs, the Glenn Becks, and all those who  put on their racist demonstrations at tea party events.  The attempts to appease conservative acrimony, much of which has an obvious racial basis, have come across as a lack of moral courage.  Good people, such as Ms. Sherrod, are maligned and hurt.

 Obviously, the USDA, Obama, and the NAACP should have demanded to see the entire video of Shirley Sherrod's speech before making any conclusions.  But that is not the way things work in the current political climate.  The  fomenting of hatred, the promotion of slander, the destruction of those who have different beliefs and values is the dominating force that motivates the way language is used.

Cable news, talk radio, and the Internet have adopted hate propaganda as its verbal currency.  One can find many examples of subreptive language in the South Dakota blogosphere on a daily basis.  That's one of the reasons that many bloggers have withdrawn or greatly curtailed their activity on blogs.  There is a pronounced division between those who vent their scurrilous malevolence on blogs and those who seek refuge from it.  It is a division between those who value language as the medium of communication and those who see it as the stuff out of which their destructive devices are composed.  The culture wars are being fought more intensely than ever.  And like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they produce nothing but death and destruction, and no one can be a victor.  People live in fear and loathing of each other.  But this is not a circumstance that can be blamed on politicians and media.  The politicians and the media simply reflect what the people want.

Sooner or later, the people must come to terms with the fact that true grassroots movement in America is the dysfunction and toxicity and that politicians and the media cater to it to get voters and an audience. 

Shirley Sherrod is not the first and only person to be sacrificed on the altar of malice that pervades America.  She most certainly won't be the last.  If the culture keeps going on the trend it follows, we'll all end up there.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States