Free speech not always intelligent speech |

Free speech not always intelligent speech

A few days past, Jeff Ackerman, the publisher of The Union, was tagged as a “redneck” because of his position supporting individual freedom of expression. Evidently, Mr. Ackerman’s critic finds this freedom excessive when exercised among those whose views differ from his own. From time to time, I read or hear criticism that the local newspaper is biased in its reporting and its editorials, or that it favors a certain point of view when printing letters or opinion pieces. Remarkably, these comments come alike from the right and the left of the political spectrum or from both sides of an issue.

As someone who has received unsigned hate mail as a result of my contributions to the paper, I can empathize with Mr. Ackerman, but only to a point, because he receives a lot more of it than those of us who write on an infrequent basis. I have been called an ass for reasons apparent only to the semi-literate person who sent me a semi-coherent letter without the courtesy or moral courage to sign his or her name. Possibly, his crayon broke before he could sign. I’m not sure what sort of position or opinion meets the criteria for ass, but I do admit to certain periods of transient behavior in my life when that description was an apt one. My wife doesn’t use the word, but I have little doubt that the concept has crossed her mind on more than occasion.

Having invested 30 years of my life in the defense of this republic and its institutions, I feel strongly that people have the right to think their own thoughts and express them freely, whether you or I agree with them or not. I have been to places where freedom of speech and ideas is limited or suppressed altogether. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it there. A free press is freedom of speech writ large. I certainly don’t agree with all the editorials, columns and letters in The Union, but I am thankful for them. Every reading of the op-ed page is a reminder that each of us has the right to speak his or her mind.

The only criticism I have of the paper is the quality of debate among some of those who write columns and letters. Despite the regular publication of articles characterized by clear thinking and solid argument, the level of debate among some has sunk to the point of name-calling, tantrums, and other forms of rhetorical hyperventilation. Not even two months past the primary election, the trash merchants already are at it. Evidently, their idea is that if you can’t find a source for criticism in a person’s argument or political position, you carry out a personal attack on that individual, facts be damned. This habit is common among two or three of the paper’s regular columnists, as well as infrequent letter writers. Although facts form only a sufficient and not a necessary basis for an opinion, they are a necessity for truth.

One of the implications of free expression is that people are accountable for their words, and have the opportunity to suffer criticism, particularly if they put forth an inaccurate or misleading argument. Consequently, each of us has an inalienable right to look dumb in public. Some exercise that right on a fairly regular basis. It’s remarkable that so many continue to follow the low road of vituperation and “dirty tricks” despite well-established data showing that personal attacks tend to alienate the public at large from the source of the attack and generate sympathy for the person attacked.

It is my hope that, at least between now and the election in November, those who offer opinions or arguments for or against particular candidates or issues will make their best efforts to stick to the facts and merits of the issues, expressed with reason and civility, while voluntarily suppressing the right to look dumb in public.

May we be preserved from the tedium of similar viewpoints and the apathy of comfortable circumstances.

Nathan Beason of Nevada City was a naval officer for 30 years. He currently works in private-sector management.

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