• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Obama's Gaffe–and Mine–and Yours…

It may not be obvious at first glance, but President Barack Obama is a lot like me. We both used to live in Hyde Park and  attend the University of Chicago. We both are married to beautiful and capable wives. And we both have said something we shouldn’t have in public.

The joke Mr. Obama made on the Tonight Show has received a lot of press — more attention than was given to what was an even more revealing remark about American bank executives. (You can read about these gaffes and a whole lot of others by other presidents and by other administration figures here.)

My own gaffes, on the contrary, receive no press at all — thank God! But as I made one or two more last week in some speeches I was giving, I reflected afterward on just what the heck happened. Why did I make that offensive joke? Why did I use that incendiary word?

Sometimes, to be sure, when people are under stress — and this is true of even experienced public speakers — we say weird things. A character in a situation comedy we watched on television last night is under preposterously severe stress and says something ridiculous. As he walks away from the situation, fully conscious of how stupid he sounded, he muses ruefully, “… and that was just the right moment to say that for the first time in my life.” So we have to cut each other a little slack: people under stress sometimes do inexplicable things, including making tasteless jokes or using inappropriate language.

But I’m not inclined to let myself entirely off the hook, however forgiving I might feel toward President Obama or any other public figure.  I recall the words of Jesus: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

That joke came from somewhere. That word came from somewhere.

Yes, we live in a sarcastic and vulgar culture, in which even highly educated professionals routinely use the coarsest language as a workday norm. Yes, our comedians make a living trying to shock us with ever more insulting humor and outrageous expressions. It is part of the air we breathe and the toxins enter us whether we like them or not.

Again, recognizing that kind of constant cultural influence should help me be more understanding and forgiving of others who screw up in public.

Nonetheless, it is simply true that sometimes I really do mean what I say. Sigmund Freud was prone to overstatement, but there is more than a grain of truth in his dictum, “There is no such thing as a joke.” And as I search my heart for the attitudes expressed in this joke or that word choice, I confess I am sometimes dismayed at what I find.

Teachers of professional public speaking sometimes advise students to practice good diction, smooth word flow, and proper voice pitch variation in everyday conversation. Of course, to overdo such practice would result in absurdly stilted conversation. Still, as my piano teacher used to say, the way you practice is the way you perform.

And sometimes, alas, the way you really do think about things and the way you really do talk about things — that is, the way you think and talk when you think no one can hear or no one will be offended — really does come out in public.

Kyrie eleison–Lord, have mercy.

And may we attend to what we have inadvertently exposed in our gaffes. It’s good to get forgiveness. It’s better to get healed.