One of the strange results of living in the midst of a communications revolution is that instead of the truth becoming clearer, distortions of the truth seem to proliferate. Two recent incidents come to mind that seem to drive home this point.
Last week, about 3,000 South African blacks were en route to a funeral when South African police fired upon them, killing 19 and wounding more than two dozen. Coincidentally, this massacre occurred on the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 blacks were killed by police.
In the wake of this senseless slaughter, President Reagan was asked at his recent news conference if U.S. policy will be changed to put more pressure on Pretoria to mend its ways. He responded, unfortunately, "I think, to put it that way, that they were simply killed and that the violence was coming totally from the law-and-order side, ignores the fact that there was rioting going on on behalf of others there."
This is a classic example of Reagan's ability to distort the truth. When asked about his administration's effort to harness the violent action of the Pretoria government, he responds by talking about rioters, not mourners who were killed while trying to attend a funeral.
In a follow-up question, he was asked whether he thought the unarmed blacks posed a threat to the whites who had the guns. To this he responded, "No. I say there has been increasing violence, and there is an element in South Africa that does not want a peaceful settlement of this, who want a violent settlement, who want trouble in the streets, and this is what is going on."
Again, rather than conceding that the government bears any responsibility for either the violence or the oppression taking place there, Reagan attacked the people being oppressed for their resistance to the oppression.
But in his news conference, Reagan did not even stop there. He also pointed out, "I think also it is significant that . . . on the police side . . . that some of those enforcing the law and using the guns were black policemen." I wish the president could realize that whether or not the police involved in a massacre are black or white is absolutely irrelevant. A massacre is a massacre.
Reagan's statements are not only distortions of the truth, but they also in effect lay the responsibility for the recent violence on the slaughtered mourners. I wouldn't say the president is doing this deliberately, but I do wish he would choose his words more carefully.
And on the subject of choosing words more carefully, a much less serious example of subtle distortion comes to mind, one that occurred last week at a dinner hosted by the Joint Center for Political Studies. Andrew Brimmer, the noted economist, was guest speaker. According to Brimmer, "Blacks have reached the point where the cutting edge is not discrimination but capability, capacity and marketability."
While I do agree on the need for blacks to become self-reliant and supportive of education and black businesses, I can see danger in part of his analysis.
Overly diminishing the issue of discrimination puts the blame for victimization squarely on the shoulders of those who are victimized and trivializes the fact that many external forces are conspiring to keep them in that position. Moreover, it makes the rest of us feel that we have no social responsibility for their status.
This can lead the victims into being crippled by society's low opinions of them while perpetuating their own low self-esteem, blocking motivation and incentive for self-improvement.
A generation ago, many of our parents bowed to their second-class status, but during the '60s and '70s the window of opportunity opened. It now appears to be closing for many of our citizens. If we are to keep it open for all of us, we must listen carefully for distortions -- whether they involve race, class or even the Holocaust -- and avoid blaming the victims for their own victimization.