06 March 2013 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

Incivil Discourse

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen

“To find anger is to lose reason. It paves the way for many regrets and continuous acts of foolishness. One can seldom be proud of what they say or do when angry.” 

                    - V. Neil Wyrick

Neil Wyrick, a  resident of Florida, is an elderly, retired minister and prolific writer of wise words. For years, The Chief has been on his e-mail list and has received weekly his brief essays on various topics – all with a comforting message. We have used them or parts of them once or twice, but usually they don’t fit in with our editorial topics.

Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing them in my in-box, and had realized recently that it had been a while since I’d received one.

About the same time as that realization, I was the target of some verbal venom from a person who was, in my opinion, unjustly angry with me. For an instant, it crossed my mind to respond in kind, but some instinct led me to continue in a calm and rational tone.

Afterwards, I was glad I did, but the hurt those angry words inflicted sat somewhere between my heart and stomach like a heavy, slightly-nauseous lump. I came home, vented to my long-suffering husband, then launched myself into several hours of heavy, and partially unnecessary, housework.

The physical labor helped dispel the emotional scar tissue, but it was still lingering a bit the next morning when I checked my e-mail. Among the spam and the usual round of press releases, there was a gentle and reassuring note from a friend who had witnessed the anger directed at me, and a short column from V. Neil Wyrick, entitled “Are You Mad Today? Are You Having Fun?”

The angry lump dissolved with the healing touch of a friend’s kindness, and the wise words sent through cyberspace from 3,000 miles away.

Wyrick explained that the dozens – perhaps hundreds – of small publications on his e-mail list had not received a column for a while because he had suffered a stroke, and had just gotten out of rehab. That was it – no self-pity – just a brief explanation about the delay and then 250 words on the destructive nature of anger, including a couple of anecdotal examples, and a quote from Will Rogers:

“Anyone who flies off in a rage is going to have a very rocky landing.”

I was raised in a family – the family that has owned and operated this newspaper for over 91 years – which has been known for strong opinions, strongly expressed.Members of my family, including myself, have also been known to pop off in anger. It’s something I’ve been trying to unlearn for the past 25 years or so.

But the nature of running a small-town newspaper makes one a target for the anger of others  – because of our editorials, because of reporting unpleasant or uncomfortable facts, because of the journalistic equivalent of the “shoot-the-messenger” syndrome, because of the inevitable, occasional mistakes or omissions.

Over the years I’ve been scolded, screamed at, threatened and offered bribes – which I’ve never accepted. When I or another member of the staff have made an error, I have learned to apologize without argument or excuses. When the screaming or the scolding is unjust, sometimes I have responded in kind, but increasingly I realize that two angry people just compound the problem.

“Violence in the voice is often only the death rattle of reason in the throat.”

- John Frederick Boyes

“Men often make up in wrath what they want in reason.”

- William Rounseville Alger

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrong.” – Charlotte Bronte

In publishing this newspaper, our family has embraced the defense of the First Amendment and the philosophy expressed in a paraphrase of the French philosopher Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We express our opinions – sometimes passionately – in this editorial column. But with the occasional exception of political figures, we try to avoid personal attacks. It is our goal to make our point without taking cheap shots against those who disagree with us. We think one should be able to debate political and social issues without being personally mean or hateful about it, without calling people who disagree with us names.

The current trend of inflammatory rhetoric and personal attacks practiced by politicians and commentators on both ends of the political spectrum is, in our opinion, contributing to the failure to find solutions to our problems. The present incivil discourse practiced by both the elected and the electorate is certainly not unique in our history, but it has never boded well for peace and prosperity.

Politicians and voters alike are all too human. After someone has called you a bunch of hateful names and accused you of all kinds of terrible things, it is difficult to sit down with them and work cooperatively and productively towards the common good. It is difficult to even see what that common good is.

Not long ago we received a letter to the editor in opposition to an opinion expressed in this column. We had no problem with publishing a letter that disagreed with our editorial, but the tone was very angry and the letter was filled with vitriolic personal criticisms of  the writer.

The letter was accompanied by a short e-mail which seemed to imply that we might not have the integrity to print a letter disagreeing with us. We responded that we would print the letter – we print the vast majority of letters submitted, and especially those that take a different side then we do editorially – but we pointed out that we had expressed our opinion without stooping to personal attacks.

That spawned what turned out to be a healthy discussion of how to disagree in a civil manner. The letter was rewritten in what we believe was a much more convincing tone than the original angry one. While we still didn’t agree with it, we were happy to print it.

“Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding.”

- Mahatma Gandhi

Recently, we ran a series of letters to the editor on the issue of commercial gillnets versus the views of some sports fishing groups and individuals. Some of the letters personally called out other letter writers on the opposite side of the issue.

We’re sorry we allowed that, and we won’t in the future. Letters to the editor should be written to the editor, not personally to the writer with whom you’re disagreeing. If they are not, we will either not print them – they are, after all, published at our expense – or send them back for rewriting.

This newspaper is renewing its vow to promote “civil discourse,” described by the social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen as “the language of dispassionate objectivity.” Please write your opinions respectfully; don’t diminish the moral worth of someone who disagrees with you. Please avoid hostility and antagonism.

If you’re angry, clean the house, work in the garden, go for a walk or a run, go work out, pray or meditate, read the Bible or another wise book, talk to a patient and kind friend.

Then, when you’re not angry any more, write me a letter.

When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred.”

               – Thomas Jefferson

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