10/26/2010 11:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Offense? Insult? The Firing of Juan Williams

When broadcaster Juan Williams described his nervousness about Muslims on airplanes, was it a case of accidental offense or purposeful insult? Was he consciously disparaging Muslims or did he simply not think through the wisdom of expressing his thoughts?

It's possible to come down on either side of this question. And how you do affects whether you think NPR's firing of Williams was the action of an organization bravely taking the higher ground or one too cowardly to stand by an employee who spoke before filtering.

In politics and life, if you can't separate accidental offense from purposeful insult you're likely to get into disputes that could have been avoided. People constantly offend each other without even trying. A slip of the tongue is all it takes. When a word or look is interpreted in a way in which it wasn't intended, a vocal inflection undermines conviction, or a nonverbal gesture is overlooked or taken too seriously, meaning suffers and so can relationships and careers. And these are just a few ways that things can go wrong when people attempt to convey their thoughts.

If offenses are treated as insults, then where is the range of error? Today, there seems to be none: no gray area, only two mutually exclusive categories and in this heated political climate an inclination to see the most negative one. Even constructive criticism is viewed as personal attack.

Viewing things in such a bipolar way overlooks the important gray area in judging other people's intentions. A person might ask whether Williams actually dislikes Muslims or instead suffers from residual 9/11-based fear. Isn't there a difference? Isn't the latter something he might learn to put aside because he knows people of any nationality differ from each other?

NPR apologized for the handling of Williams' firing, but argued that it was the final straw as Williams had been warned to keep his personal feelings to himself. The unfortunate thing is, as NPR admitted, the hastiness with which the incident was handled. It was a knee-jerk reaction to derogatory comments that should not have been said instead of a thought out response to the actions of a person whose intentions may not have been reflected in his choice of words. Who hasn't been there?

I'm not suggesting Williams did nothing wrong, but when we react in a knee-jerk fashion more often than we thoughtfully respond -- as has been the case around the Williams furor and much of the political landscape of late -- the outcomes can't be good.

Defending himself, Williams said, "I didn't advocate discriminating against Muslims." Of course, it isn't necessary to advocate against a group to insult them. Treating "the other" with indifference or in a patronizing manner can be insulting because it's often purposeful. Williams should have said something along the lines of, "Fear is not rational and that is what I was describing. I'm not proud of it " or "I shared a post-9/11 personal reaction that shouldn't exist let alone be expressed."

The Juan Williams firing is a lesson about reacting too strongly before all the facts are in. It's a lesson about the dangers of relying on assumptions about intent without inquiring.

These days, we seem to be getting a little too quick to place blame and then act. "You're either with me or against me" is how too many of us operate now. Polarization is fashionable. Hatred is becoming rampant. Too many of us decide and even act before our brains have been sufficiently engaged. Our country can only suffer as a result.

We can do much better.

Dr. Reardon is the author of COMEBACKS AT WORK and also blogs at bardscove.