Wednesday, December 1, 2004
The other day, an e-mail popped up with the subject line, "tired of insults." I grimaced a bit and opened it. The correspondent first told me that she reads my paper most every week, and "I like the Free Press." But then she got to the point: "I wanted to let you know that you do have some conservative readers and I, for one, would like to read more articles by liberals that are not SO OFFENSIVE."
Now and then, I get an e-mail from an angry ultra-conservative who hates the fact that a progressive publication even exists in Mississippi—how dare someone question the governor, much less the president of the United States, or even education cuts? Something like: Why don't you just move if you don't agree with "our values"? Blah, blah. As a chick whose birthright is as Mississippi as the next guy's, I tend to shrug these off—just as I do e-mails that accuse us of being too far to the right. It happens, too.
Truth is, I could probably count the number of frothing angry messages we've gotten at the JFP on one hand, two at the most, over our entire existence. I'm proud to report that our readers, whatever their political stripe, get that our message is positive and that we've got facts to back us up when we complain about something. They may not agree with us, but they respect what we do. And that's all we can ask for.
So I was confused by this woman's e-mail. It was different. She likes the paper enough to read it every week, and it's not like we all of a sudden have shown our progressive leanings: those were there in the very first issue. No, it was the word "offensive" that got me. It seemed an odd choice of a word. Wouldn't she have us found us "offensive" a long time ago if she was just a kneejerk conservative? There was something not quite kosher about her response.
I had three choices. I could (1) ignore the ignorant @#$%, (2) write back and be really snarky or (3) try to talk to her about her concerns. I chose No. 3. I explained that we strive to publish a variety of viewpoints. I told her how I reject columns from the far right and far left or even the middle that are just blathering anger without a factual basis (you know, like Ann Coulter or a certain left-left wing guy from the alt world who inundates me with his columns and cartoons. If he's reading: NO!). I even divulged my frustration that I get many pitches for conservative columns that never materialize once I mention that we fact check, or even that several Republicans never bothered making the deadline. (No judgment there; just plain truth.) I reminded her of our Libertarian columnists and told her about a new young Republican writer we're hoping to bring on.
Then I asked her to tell me what specifically she found "offensive" about the JFP. I probably sounded a little challenging and defensive, but I wanted to know. I was ready to learn from her answer and apologize if need be. We went back and forth a bit with her even accusing me of being hostile and my responding that I didn't mean to be, that asking someone to detail the "offensiveness" was only fair, that I was serious about knowing what she found offensive. And I suggested that she be sure that it was our publication that had offended her.
This was the turning point in our conversation. She did some homework and, voila!, found the "offensive" story on another paper's Web site. She wrote me with a sincere apology: "I very much appreciate your response and attention to my comments. Although I don't always agree with everything I read in your editorials, I find them interesting and well written. I WOULD like to read more conservative viewpoints, though, and I hope you find a reliable writer. Again, I hope you'll pardon my mistake." Done, girlfriend.
I share this anecdote to make a point about what linguistic expert and author Deborah Tannen calls "The Argument Culture." To put it mildly, our ability to have a conversation is breaking down in this country—in large part due to a corporate, sensationalist media that tries to divide everything into two sides even if it's really fact-vs.-fiction (read her book), but also because we are so sure that "we" are right and "they" are wrong that conversation stops cold.
The second lesson is that it isn't always easy to get to the higher ground. "Civil" doesn't mean unchallenging. It doesn't mean you should bury your intelligence. And it doesn't mean you should take everything lying down. Girlfriend and I had some tense moments first, but we powered through them. I would definitely call us e-pals now, but it took some work and determination to get there.
The "argument culture" today, though, is scaring me. It's gotten to the point that civil debate is becoming a relic of the past. There are Web sites where all people do is curse each other and think they sound smart when they sound like utter idiots and only attract, well, utter idiots who are often whining and cursing about why they got kicked off other sites for acting like, well, utter idiots who only communicate in utter-idiot-style insults. (See the cycle?)
On our site, which is known for civil dialogue with only the occasional "troll" (one who "communicates" with insults), our user agreement requires "civil" discourse. That doesn't mean you have to agree with anyone's opinion; only that you be respectful and avoid personal attacks in order to participate. And, if you get ornery or say something rude, it's cool to apologize. We're adults. But it continually amazes me to see the folks who clearly don't know the difference between conversation and ad hominem attacks. In a land of talk-radio spewing and "Crossfire"-esque he-said-she-said journalism where only "both" extremes are heard, Americans seem to be forgetting what conversation really is—and thus losing the middle ground. It can be difficult, it can make someone uncomfortable, but it is necessary to our future as a great nation.
As philosopher John Dewey said so simply: "Democracy begins in conversation." I sure am glad a certain Republican nurse and I put aside our differences and figured how to talk to each other.
Conservative (and other) viewpoints of up to 750 words are welcome in the JFP.
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