Tuesday, June 25, 2013

For Whom Will Tomorrow’s Bell Toll? Thoughts On Paula Deen

"A word once spoken can never be taken back..."

So goes the old African proverb, wisdom no doubt gleaned from a lesson that was learned the hard way.

Last week, we all watched the train wreck that resulted in Paula Deen’s removal from the Food Network. Ms. Deen will appropriately have to answer for her workplace atmosphere – she is singularly responsible for the conditions in which her employees worked, and for their treatment while there. If the allegations are true, then feeling shame, remorse and regret for her actions is, in this case, appropriate.*

The deeper problem with Ms. Deen’s story is that the court of public opinion doesn’t exact justice. It cries for vengeance. I wondered, along with several friends, what would happen if people demanded that we be held responsible for the careless words we’ve spoken in the past?

While Ms. Deen’s racial slurs were certainly reprehensible and offensive, as her story plays out in social and traditional media I can’t help but wonder at the larger movement happening: how swiftly and thoroughly today’s court of public opinion exacts its own pound of flesh.

The deeper problem with Ms. Deen’s story is that the court of public opinion doesn’t exact justice. It cries for vengeance.  I wondered, along with several friends, what would happen if people demanded that we be held responsible for the careless words we’ve spoken in the past? 

Once Words are Let Loose

This was the power of the Oscar-winning movie Crash. It poignantly showed that none of us is immune to careless words spoken in hate, haste, jest, or outright ignorance. It also showed the complex perceptions and emotions that surround our words.  As one astute friend pointed out, we are all aware of the chasm that often exists between cultures, and the potential for what can be misconstrued in what we initially think is a simple ‘turn of phrase.’  My friend, who investigates claims of workplace harassment, pointed out that we all make ‘faux pas.’ Sometimes an apology is necessary, and at other times, people mercifully let us off the hook.  And then, there are times when legal action is necessary, as was felt in the case of those who brought suit against Ms. Deen.

Yet my friend’s words remind us that Ms. Deen’s experience is certainly a universal one to which we all can relate.  We human beings seem to enjoy the taste of our own feet, and this pervasive condition of ‘foot-in-mouth’ is the reason that the books of James and Proverbs underscore the fact that great power lies in the tongue.

More seriously, however, the Bible tells us that one day, we will all give account for the words we have spoken.

Words matter, and this bald truth tells on us every time we open our mouths.

Words and the Public Court

But grace matters all the more – and the court of public opinion becomes more harsh and demanding every day. The court of public opinion is a lonely place where one sits on trial while others (who hide their guilt for the same crimes or worse) point, sneer, mock, objectify, and carry out sentence.  In Ms. Deen’s case, the sentence was vocational execution. 

Few will stand with the accused in these instances for fear of being excoriated and judged themselves.  Indeed, the celebrities and talk-show-hosts who propelled Ms. Deen’s career into the limelight are currently nowhere to be found as she sits in her public shame; such is the power of the public court.

There have been some measured voices who have expressed their disappointment in Ms. Deen, while still showing compassion and understanding toward her. Voices such as these give us hope.  

Of particular note, however, was the voice of African American Pastor Gregory Tyson, Sr.  Here is a man who knew her deeds and, in spite of her lack of cultural sensitivity, stepped in to promote what he knew of the character of the “Paula Deen” largely unreported by the media. While we may differ on his words, his opinion, and the manner of his approach,  it cannot be denied that he is a man who calls Ms. Deen ‘friend.’*

Though his defense likely felt like so much spitting into the wind, he publicly stood firm with Ms. Deen.  How grateful we all would be to have such a friend to stand with us boldly in our shame, not from a distance but close enough to be soiled with our dirt and be identified as a friend of the accused when it would be all too easy to desert.

A True Declaration

It’s here that we find the heart of the matter: those who know Christ have just such a friend. He not only stands with us in our shame, but takes our shame on Himself and declares us as more than ones whose sins are forgiven. He declares us, in spite of all the evidence our fallen condition generates to the contrary, as ones who “had never been sinners in the first place.”

We all need to be reminded that we will be judged by our words, and that our own mouths will condemn us.  To put it another way, we all violate our own moral judgments, and while justice may be appropriate, we all also stand in need of mercy. 

We will be judged not merely for the words that are spoken, but also the ones that ramble through our thoughts yet never reach our lips. We have all thought things far more reprehensible than what Paula Deen has said.  Ironically, those who judge Ms. Deen most harshly will similarly be held accountable by their own words because they have violated their own moral judgments, and cannot themselves adhere to them. 

For now, it is easy to laugh, mock, disdain, ascribe motivation, offer remedies for rehabilitation, or perhaps even feel empathy and compassion for those caught in the media’s myopic gaze.  But what of the day when each of us offends in haste or ignorance, or perhaps creates  offense simply by speaking the truth?  What will be said should the lens turn on us, and we are called to blink in the harsh, glaring lights on our day in the court of public opinion? 

Looking beyond the temporal, where will we hide when we stand in the court of the Eternal and find that every word we’ve spoken has been measured? 

Who will come to our defense, either now or in the future, when the bell - inevitably - tolls for us?

* This paragraph has been edited to reflect new information released in the media (6/26). To read the paragraph as it originally appeared, click here.

Karen Ellis has enjoyed a long career in broadcast media and the arts, and now writes on theology, identity and human rights. She invites you to follow her on Twitter, @KarAngEllis.


  1. Karen,
    Thank you for that thoughtful treatise of such a sensitive issue. As a child of God I had a similar reaction. We all will be held to account for words either spoken or thought. I thank God for His grace. God bless you and Carl.
    Vinny Joy

    1. It's hard to find the balance, isn't it? On the one hand, we want to ensure that no one gets a 'pass' for unrepentant sin, yet how far do we go in exacting justice? That's one (of many) differences between us and God - His justice always has mercy - which we all want for ourselves; yet we often want vengeance for everybody else. In Shakespeare's words, "Lord, what fools these mortals be," myself included. Thanks for checking this out.

  2. To me, there is another issue here. It is how in our efforts to exact vengeance, we prolong racism. I wrote on a friend's blog that having grown up in a White school district outside of Philly (during 60's and early 70's), how would I know if some of my words and judgments indicate the possibility of having some racist views? After all, the people who could best qualified to tell me are Blacks, Arabs, Orientals, Latinos and others. They would perhaps be better qualified to tell me if I am a racist than myself because I, like others, have a conflict of interest when judging myself.

    It seems that all of the condemnations that have been heaped onto Paula Deen have been efforts to show that the people condemning her are on the right side of the race issue. And in so doing, we make it nearly impossible for many of us to face the possible racism and other bigotries we might possess in varying degrees.

    We need to find a way of dealing with racism and other bigotries that both condemns them as intolerable while inviting us to look inside and share with others so we purge ourselves of the various bigotries and hatreds that we harbor inside.

  3. I hear what you're saying and you make good points about how we all need to watch our words, very true. However, I don't think just because she lost some endorsements, she was vocationally executed. Those are pretty strong words for someone who is just experiencing the weight of her actions, especially being a public figure. Had I said something worse or equally like this as a leader or member of a corporation, I would've been fired too. It would not be vengeance. It is unfortunate that Food Network, Caesars Entertainment and Walmart dropped Paula Deen, but is she not being held accountable for her actions? Honestly, I don't think it would be just for her corporate sponsors to graciously continue their business with her when she has not attempted to make things right with those she has wronged, but rather continues to focused on convincing others that she is not racist. I think we (the Christian community) sometimes forget that grace and accountability/justice go hand-in-hand. There is grace for us when we do wrong, but we must still, myself included, take responsibility for our actions and be ready to face the consequences of them too. Just my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

    1. Thank you for opening up the discussion. You’ve brought up an excellent point, with which I wholeheartedly agree – Ms. Deen should be held accountable for her actions. The talking points do shift as more information comes out, don’t they?

      In your words, “I think we (the Christian community) sometimes forget that grace and accountability/justice go hand-in-hand … just my thoughts.” These are more than ‘just your thoughts,’ be assured that this is absolutely Biblical. Indeed, a lawsuit has been brought against her and by no means should she be ‘let off the hook’.

      To your point about ‘vocational execution,’ other celebrities who have been called to account for their offensive words have had varying success in restarting their careers. The extent to which Ms. Deen will find vocational viability will largely be up to how she proceeds from here.

      Though I don’t agree with all of his points, the next to the last paragraph of Dr. Boyce Watkins’ most recent article suggests a helpful prescription http://www.kulturekritic.com/2013/06/news/dr-boyce-paula-deen-loves-black-people-the-way-an-owner-loves-a-pet/.

      Yet we’re still left with some things unaddressed: who will decide the length of time for her penance, who will judge its quality, and who will decide whether she’s done enough? There are those who believe she can’t be rehabilitated at all, since she has stated herself that she has no intention to change. No indication was given (to my knowledge) from the corporations that her suspension was provisional, or that there was an opportunity for restoration. We know that the public’s opinion wags the tail of the corporate dog – these are the forces of the marketplace. Since today’s marketplace doesn’t operate by theistic standards that work toward restoration, such are the ethical difficulties of being tried in the ‘court of public opinion.’

      Personally, I am still left with two larger questions: (1) What precedents are we currently setting that we may regret later when we are the ones on the stand, and (2) how much will the ‘court of public opinion’ influence how we are publicly judged in the future, on matters both truly offensive and those that are not so easily defined?

      Thanks for weighing in.