Around this time of month during a national election or state election it is not uncommon for me to get letters (anonymous of course, because nothing says “courage” like not signing your name to a strong opinion) that say something like this: “You are not to be commended for publishing the likes of __________ (fill in the blanks) and __________, both extremists with views far from the mainstream. Wacko is the term that comes to mind.”
Actually, I got one unsigned note this week that said exactly that. It’s a pretty fair representation of angry letters I get from right and left and in between.
What is “mainstream” in Escondido? What is “wacko?” The last time there was an election for city council in Escondido, the result was the city ended up with two somewhat left leaning council seats, two right leaning seats, and one mayor who could most accurately be described as a centrist.
So what exactly is “out of the mainstream” in Escondido? Probably, for the anonymous (and highly courageous!) letter writer it translates fairly accurately as “people I disagree with.”
Everybody thinks they are part of the mainstream, and that anyone who disagrees with them is, by definition, an aberrant member of an “out there” group of wackos. Wackos are people we REALLY disagree with.
Of course, there are those who are part of an eddy or pool of the mainstream and who might rightly qualify as cuckoo birds. Who might those be, Ross? Cannibals, people who believe in a flat earth, those who think it’s OK for adults to prey on children; the John Birch Society; QAnon; Antifa; those who support the violent overthrow of the United States and perhaps latter-day practitioners of the Aztec religion, including the part about tearing out human hearts; groups that advocate beheading critics of the Prophet Mohammed; those who deny that the Holocaust took place; ranters talking to unseen voices—and I don’t mean on the cell phone. The list goes on.
But MOST of those that some people condemn as being “out of the mainstream” make up a pretty substantial percentage of the river. And just because your share of the river may be a larger than theirs doesn’t really mean that they aren’t “mainstream.”
I’m very close to being an absolutist on Freedom of Speech, the Press and of thought. I don’t think any opinions should be banned. None. Nada. Zero. Zed.
Oh yes, I know, I’m going to hear about how you “Can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.” But the legal opinion that quote is derived from was actually pretty darned narrow, and doesn’t include speaking or writing opinions that make you feel uncomfortable or threatened. It is limited to the “yelling fire part” and to not being allowed to say things such as, “Hey, let’s go kill that guy.”
Besides, the author of that doctrine—the appalling Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—was arguing that criticizing the World War I draft shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment. I don’t take my moral compass from a justice who also wrote that it was OK for the law to prevent people of low IQ’s (or as he called them: “mental defectives”) from having children because “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
More importantly, the legal opinion was partially overturned by a later Supreme Court decision: Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, which limited banned speech to that which is aimed to incite an immediate lawless act, such as a riot. So there! Most speech is protected.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t under constant assault. More so in the last few years than ever before in my lifetime. So it’s always somewhat discouraging when people of the right and the left complain when we give a voice to people they disagree with. Someone whose voting patterns may differ from theirs. Someone who, when they see them wearing a distinctive hat, or sporting a certain license plate, raises their blood pressure.
We no longer just disagree with people. We call their ethics into question. We damn them to hell for thinking differently than we do about issues that we ought to have reasoned discussions about.
Here’s a political truth: No side is ever going to get all that it demands. No side is ever going to be permanently in charge. You can’t make enduring change without including most people in the discussion. If you intimidate people who disagree with you into remaining silent, they won’t go away. They will just bide their time and come back later, embittered and seeking retribution. That’s why, whenever the party in power changes in Washington, it’s time to get out the scalping knives.
One purpose of a newspaper, in my opinion, is to provide a voice to a multiplicity of viewpoints. That’s why we encourage submissions of letters (which we only rarely decline to print, and only then when printing it would libel someone) and Op-Eds on a variety of topics. Therefore it is inevitable that you will see something you disagree with. Deal with it.
Or better yet, write something and submit it. Set up your tent and participate in the marketplace of ideas.
How boring it would be if we only read the opinions of those we nod our heads in agreement with. Yet, in our increasingly divided nation, some of us encase ourselves in cocoons so impenetrable that nothing we could possibly disagree with survives. We are outraged when we encounter contrary opinions. How dare they think such things! And worse, talk about them! Don’t they know their opinions aren’t in the mainstream?
This attitude has been lampooned most brilliantly over the years by those who quote the celebrated sports writer Ring Lardner who wrote: “ ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”
But I would rather quote Thomas Jefferson (yeah, I know he had slaves, but he also had good things to say, so shut up!) When he was first inaugurated as president, after defeating our second president, John Adams, in the first contested election in our history, Jefferson said: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
That’s right. Any opinion is tolerated because reason is left free to fight it.
Today he might put it differently. “We are all Republicans. We are all Democrats.” As our national election plays out and we cast our ballots, let’s keep that in mind.
And keep those letters coming!