Toward a less brutal debate, or are we indeed what we think we are?


Don’t we just adore the letters to the editor that describe the return of a lost wallet, or the generous help from neighbors after a fire, or the dedicated service of EMTs and police, or even the Steamship Authority employee who goes out of the way to help?

Admit it, the heart swells with self-satisfaction and contentment at the thought that ours is a community in which the milk of human kindness and sympathetic understanding courses like hurricane floodwaters along each and every potholed dirt road? What a remarkable place to live. Complacency bathes us in its irresistible glow.

But, what to make of the other sort of letters, the letters that flash angrily and with such unhesitant conviction about so many other folks who find themselves in the maelstrom of a Vineyard struggle? Now, add to this instinct for attack among letter writers the enhanced aggression of the online comment posters.

Vineyarders giveth and they taketh away. They praiseth and they slammeth. And they do so even when they possess only some of the facts that a more disciplined thinker might require before making a judgment. Vineyarders write from the heart, I suppose, and sometimes it’s a very dark heart indeed.

Although we cherish the illusion that, living here, we are immune to the behaviors so common in public debate nationally, we are not. As public debate has coarsened across the country, it has coarsened here.

Indeed, Islanders, in their public judgments, praise too fulsomely and condemn too heartily, just as their countrymen on the mainland do.

Now, you may say, this applies to newspaper editors also, and you may be right, although I could not possibly comment. H. L. Mencken, the journalist and critic and a favorite of mine, thought he knew just what newspapers were about:

“A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier,” he said.

Today, he might have more accurately had in mind the Internet or the cable television shows for tiresome political controversialists.

One way newspapers pursue their exalted calling is by publishing harsh commentary in editorial columns. Doing so is part of a long tradition, established, or at least accepted by the Founders in the language of the First Amendment. I always remind myself, and I remind you, that the Founders did not have the Bill of Rights in mind at the beginning. Worried and skeptical of federalism, some of them insisted on immutable guarantees against federal aggression, if their states were to be persuaded to sign up.

I don’t for a moment believe that they were without misgivings as they inscribed the words, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…,” but those estimable forbears must have been comforted by the certain knowledge that the judgments of newspaper writers were subject to rigid discipline in the marketplace of ideas. (And, as was often the case in those hot times, if the editorial writer’s judgments were sufficiently objectionable, a brick or a boulder hurled through the newspaper office window might be used to make a point. Thankfully, that particular brand of downright hooliganism is in the past. Ed.) But the thought was that if readers weren’t favoring the views that journalists were advancing, that marketplace would sort them out, and punish the views that offended. And do so quickly.

For practitioners of journalism, whether the unblinking partisan or the slashing critic, there is inescapable risk. But, what is the risk to the lay participants in public debates? Unfortunately, there is almost none.

In this American life, everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how it is constructed, no matter how it is expressed. What is it worth in the marketplace of ideas? Perhaps not much, but there is a place for it anyway.

The fondness we have developed for venting our feelings, and the restlessness we experience as we sit still while the other guy vents his, has doubtless got something to do with the nasty turn public discourse has taken.

What was cheerfully described years ago as the rough and tumble of political debate is now conducted with shiv and sap, and turning the tide may require some self-discipline — not a favored concept these days.

Still, all of us would benefit from some restraint in the expression of opinions, from some modest devotion to that old fashioned notion that logical argument is most persuasive, from some slight generosity when toting up the failings of one’s neighbors, from some considerable modesty when reflecting on our own failings, and from some patience as the full contours of the latest outrage are made plain.

I am confident that the free application of these few refinements would hardly dull the community’s appetite for having it out over even the least significant public question.