I didn't plan it this way, but the increasingly urgent issue of how we talk to each other in these fraught days has been the theme of the last two Sunday columns, from the discussion two weeks ago about Linn-Benton Community College's Civil Discourse Club to last week's piece about The Conversation Project's April 11 session at the Marys River Grange outside of Philomath.
I owe the Grange a bit of an apology for last week's column, and we'll get to that. But, this week, let's turn the conversation a little closer to home and talk about the letters to the editor that appear on this page.
First, this note: I love receiving these missives from readers and believe that the letters column on our Opinion pages still serves as an important spot for conversations about the issues of the day, regardless of whether they're great or small, local or national. Over the space of a year, we publish more than 1,000 letters from readers.
People always are curious about how we determine which letters to the editor appear in print; maybe they suspect some arcane formula is at work, or perhaps a modern algorithm.
No such luck. Here's the general rule: If a letter is 250 words or less, isn't libelous, doesn't advocate violence or other criminal activity, appears to be written in the writer's own words and doesn't use too much profanity, we'll post it on our websites and eventually print it. We try to limit writers to two printed letters a month. (The Gazette-Times always receives more letters to the editor than the Democrat-Herald, and so there may be more of a lag to be printed in the G-T. Letters go up on the websites as soon as we find time to process them and in some cases may be online for days before they're printed.)
Generally, Kim Jackson (who handles letters to the D-H) and I edit these letters lightly, but lately, I've been concerned by a couple of trends.
First, these letters are not the place for personal attacks on other letter writers; you should feel free to attack the opinions expressed in those letters as much as you'd like, but be careful about crossing the line into personal attacks. I understand that the boundary there can be a thin one, but it's a boundary that I need to do a better job tending.
Second, I've noticed a recent trend in letter writers taking exception to other letters (which is fine) but then going a step further by arguing that it was improper for us to publish the initial letter in the first place.
That gives me pause.
An Opinion page that never publishes anything that you disagree with is an Opinion page that isn't doing its job. It almost certainly eventually would devolve to a bland rehashing of a community's conventional wisdom — and conventional wisdom on occasion needs to be tweaked and challenged.
At a legislative town hall meeting held Saturday at LBCC, Rep. Marty Wilde, who represents parts of Linn and Lane counties, said he didn't think people change their minds at those meetings, that they come primarily to express their opinions. That's likely correct — and it's probably true as well for most of the material that we publish on the Opinion page, including editorials and letters.
But in an era where it's never been easier to isolate yourself from differing opinions, there's a real benefit in listening to or reading the viewpoints of other people. I think that's why a forum like the letters to the editor is valuable. Shutting off viewpoints doesn't do anything to advance the conversation; in fact, it runs the risk of shutting it down altogether — and this is not a time when we can afford that.
Now, about that apology to the Marys River Grange: As alert readers possibly have noticed, I typically write this column on Saturdays (right on the ragged edge of deadline disaster). Generally, the last thing I do is find an image to accompany the column online. Last week, I grabbed a file photo of the Grange building, and posted it online.
It turns out that it was an old photo of the Grange, back in the days when it looked considerably more, well, rustic. A recent renovation has the building looking much spiffier. (See the online version of the column for a photo.) It will be a terrific place to gather for that April 11 conversation. (mm)