Yesterday Paul Shirley posted an essay regarding the Haitian relief effort entitled If you rebuild it they will come. Mr Shirley is a retired basketball player and freelance author. He posted the article on a site called FlipCollective which contains essays written by Shirely and nine other authors. In addition to writing for FlipCollective, Mr Shirley also wrote a weekly music column for the ESPN website that was featured on Page 2.
Mr Shirley’s essay is a critical look at the Haitian relief effort. He questions the wisdom of donating toward rebuilding Haiti. He asks tough questions about accountability.
Public outcry was swift and violent. If you read the comments after the essay you’ll see a disturbing number wished death or harm to the author. In less than 24 hours ESPN released this press statement:
“Statement Regarding Paul Shirley: He was a part-time freelance contributor. The views he expressed on another site of course do not at all reflect our company’s views on the Haiti relief efforts. He will no longer contribute to ESPN.”
I do not agree with Mr Shirley’s essay, but I do think it raises important questions. Questions about Haiti and questions about disagreement.
Questions about Haiti
The relief effort in Haiti is encouraging to see. I believe it is important for those of us who have been blessed with much to offer support.
When I see the news coverage from Haiti it causes me to wonder. Where was the concern for Haiti one month ago? A nation where 80% of the population falls below the poverty line, where more than 80% of urban areas are slums, and where life expectancy is low and infant mortality is high. As a country Haiti has been dealt a tough hand, with high levels of debt and geographical features that invite disaster (particularly from drought, hurricanes, and earthquakes).
You see, it takes much more effort to offer help that goes beyond simply writing check. And it’s not as glamorous to fight poverty on a day-to-day basis as it is to fly in with disaster relief supplies. Haiti has injuries that band-aids will not fix.
Mr Shirley focuses on responsibility in his essay, to the point of sounding very cold. It is true that the leaders in Haiti failed their people. This raises difficult questions about the roles of other countries and how much help they should provide. When I say this I am referring to more than just earthquake relief efforts, I am talking about building infrastructure, eliminating slums, and establishing medical facilities.
Questions about disagreement
The way ESPN handled the controversy regarding Mr Shirley was troubling. In less than a day they completely disassociated with him. There was no discussion about what he had written (keep in mind that the controversial essay was written for an unrelated site). The implication in the press statement is that everyone at ESPN must believe and say the same thing (ESPN has a history of preventing their writers from expressing thoughts and opinions on other media outlets).
Reading blogs and news stories, and particularly the comments posted after them, reveals that we as Americans are not very good at civilized disagreement. Insults start flying. Threats of boycotts abound. Hostility is normal. Logic is normally lacking, as is compassion. And sadly, many people argue from moral or philosophical positions contradicted by their very lifestyles.
Why must we be so reactionary?
One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Frost: ”Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” You’ll notice that Frost does not say education is the ability to tolerate everything. No, the key is to be able to hear opposition and respond evenly.
This means commenters on the essay who disagreed with Mr Shirley should have responded with rebuttals, counterpoints, or developed thoughts of their own instead of using insults, curses, sarcasm, and wishes of harm. A logical argument might change Mr Shirley’s mind; a string of insults will do no good.