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  • Writer's pictureJim Donaher

Before you return to yelling at the TV, read this...

I have been watching off and on the impeachment hearings on TV. A number of things struck me politically but this isn't about that. It's more about human frailty and the need for a little mercy.

Imagine you are called to Congress to testify about something you did, say, 6 months ago. You're a busy person and you do a lot of things, and the thing they want to know about was unremarkable in the big scheme.

You're brought behind closed doors and questioned all day by members of Congress and their attorneys. Depending on what you say, one side will tend to favor you, and the other will try to pick at your story and to some degree, you. Classic courtroom TV.

After you and others complete your testimony in private, you are invited back some weeks later. This time, you will be on live TV for hours, with the same Congressional members and their lawyers asking the same questions you already answered, plus updated questions based on the testimony of others.

Among the viewers will be regular citizens like you and me, and political reporters, analysts, pundits, legal experts, parliamentary scholars, former politicians, current politicians and lots of ancillary experts on things like witness behavior, history, journalism, and so forth.

And since this is about the impeachment of the President of the United States, he and his supporters are watching too.

The common thread between the witnesses, the inquisitors, and the various onsite and remote viewers is that they are all human. They all have opinions, fed by biases, agendas, commercial affiliations, audience, experience, assumptions, logical consideration, and (usually hidden) self-interest.

But back to you, as an imaginary witness. All of those eyes and many (but not all) of those ears will be focused on you.

You have prepared as to how to answer the questions. You have an understanding of the weaker areas of your story. You have clarity about the overall impression you wish to leave.

Part of your preparation is to be ready for as many predictable questions as possible, especially from those who will be attacking you. This is akin to an NFL quarterback as he plans to play a game against one team, one day, this week. It's a challenge, but it's one team, with one defense, who will likely do some or all of the things they've done before. And if you are an NFL quarterback, it's your job.

The comparison wilts when you talk about testifying because you are preparing for 22 'other teams', all coming at you on the same day, plus two hired gun lawyers who are experts in picking apart inconsistencies in your story or your presentation or your choice of words.

They will come at you with different levels of intensity, different aims, different biases. They will ask you the dates and times of day that certain events happened. Then they will try to pin you by saying 'how could incident A have happened before incident B? That makes no sense!'

It's like someone asking a high school kid, "Wait, you said at 12:24 you were eating the ice cream sandwich, but you also said you were eating the American Chop Suey at 12:23. How could you eat ice cream at the same moment you were eating a big steaming plate of American Chop Suey? It doesn't make sense! You understand that inconsistencies like this make us question your reliability, do you understand that?"

They will tell you what you said when you testified to private, implying that you may not be consistent with what you're saying now. They may not be telling you accurately, misconstruing the words, the context or the intent. They 'helpfully' refer you to the page in the transcript where you said this. Now you have to look if you don't remember.

The transcript of your prior testimony is hundreds of pages long, and it is never interesting TV to watch a witness and their lawyer flip through pages and then read the one they were looking for. To themselves. The average viewer thinks you look confused, even when you're being smart by checking.

Your appearance is in compliance with the law, you are an expert or a fact witness who was around for some of the goings-on and you should be able to just tell the truth and go home. And that would be just great. Except for the risks.

Risks? Yes, the risks you undertake by telling the truth. These include loss of job (as well as potential opportunities for future jobs), loss of reputation, loss of friendships, accusations of betrayal and/or treachery, and loss of privacy and anonymity.

These risks affect you, but they also affect your family. You are now a public figure, and as such, some people feel free to unload their anger, frustration, and resentment toward you when you and your family just want to get ice cream or watch a movie. If you have a business, you may be boycotted or if it is a small business, simply shunned.

There is also the ever-present risk of perjury, the crime of lying under oath. Telling the truth should make this impossible, but it doesn't. Otherwise honest people can be made to appear untruthful simply by posing a twisted, wordy question, delivered with great speed, irritation, and impatience.

Mix in the possible inaccurate reference to a previous statement of your own and you have a tenuous situation with only a second to react with calm accurate confidence.

The questioner can do what they like. They have 5 minutes to ask you questions or to pontificate on any topic, related or not, that they choose. They are one of the 22.

But you are alone in the batter's box. You cannot flinch. You cannot lash out. You cannot tell the questioner their question is stupid or irrelevant or biased or that you've already answered the same question 3 times, 'Aren't you listening, Congressman?' and refuse to answer.

If you do any of these things - and even sometimes when you don't - they will call you defensive, nervous, unsure, unclear, evasive, uncooperative, belligerent, duplicitous, disloyal, unpatriotic and even a criminal. Plus, they will say you're lying, opening you up to criminal prosecution.

If you can imagine yourself just powering through this kind of inquisition, well, good for you. Maybe a career in government is your next step.

For the rest of us, I would counsel compassion. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Many of these people have deep experience and competence in their job. They perform, in many cases, highly sensitive, critically important functions in the preservation of our national security and our American way of life.

They are respected experts whose knowledge and insight are much sought-after in government (including other countries), the military, business and industry, academia, and the media.

Testifying, however, is not part of their job. Even those who appear regularly on television don't do it under oath.

  • They may lack an aptitude for quick, simple, soundbite-friendly answers.

  • They may chafe at the thought of implicating a colleague or a 'higher-up' either intentionally or by mistake.

  • They may be afraid of being in public or being the center of attention.

  • They may respond poorly to being yelled at or badgered or having their integrity questioned.

  • They may sweat profusely or have some nervous tick may take over their hands or face.

  • And they may also have something to hide, either relevant to the questioning or not.

There are a lot of factors influencing the perceived performance of a witness in these high-pressure circumstances. Most of those in the audience will judge errors and do so harshly.

Challenge yourself the next time you watch something like these hearings or political debate or a singing or dancing competition. Anything where the participants are people in high-stakes situations in front of all of us.

Pick out someone you don't immediately 'like.' On a competition show, it can be the host or a judge or a competitor. On the impeachment hearings, it may be a witness, a Congressman or a lawyer. Or a commentator, pundit, or other talking head.

Whomever you choose, ask yourself why you don't like them. Is it their reputation? Their voice, their face, their clothes?

Is it your perception of their role, or the look on their face? Did they ever actually hurt you or someone you care about?

Then ask yourself, do you really know them? (If you do, pick someone else!) How hard are you trying to justify your dislike? How rational are you claiming your irrational disdain to be?

Everybody is free to like or dislike anyone they want for any reason. This is the free will that God grants us. We're also free to eat too much, drink too much, party too much, watch whatever we want on TV, lie to our friends, stay up late or any legal thing. We're even free to love God or to ignore him.

We're free to do a lot of things, but that doesn't mean we should do them.

Jesus told us that we have two primary commandments: to love God and to love one another. If you do these 2 commandments, you take care of the other 10 commandments and all of the teaching of the Bible. Pretty efficient.

But you can't love others if you judge them, especially if you do so harshly. They're not perfect and neither are you.

God loves them. He may not like what they do all the time, but He created them and He loves them. God doesn't care for everything you do either, but he still loves you completely, more than any human being ever could.

If you choose to dislike some stranger on TV for any reason, you're not choosing to love your neighbor. Granted they don't live next door, but they live in the same world, created by the same great God who created you and me.

Given God's over-the-top love for every man, woman, and child on earth, who are we to look at some stranger on TV and decide we don't like them?

Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. God bless you!

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