‘We Come From All Divisions, Ranks, And Classes’

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
Lord George Gordon Byron
British Poet

Lord Byron’s quote was the inspiration for the name of our column. We are not so naïve as to believe our words will go beyond the small-town community newspapers in which they are published, but it is our local readers we value. It is our local readers with whom we seek a conversation that we hope will expand their view of the diverse community in which they live.

Many community newspapers in America no longer carry editorial pages because they fear losing subscribers or advertisers – the revenue is too precious to jeopardize by taking stands on sensitive, or for that matter, any issues.

If we know that the columns, guest editorials, and letters to the editor in our newspaper will challenge the beliefs of our readers, then why not eliminate the opinion page? Why not play it safe and print only those words that are most likely to least offend? If we followed this line of fearful thinking, we would fail in our job as an editor and publisher, and we would fail our community.

“We come from all the divisions, ranks, and classes of society…to teach and to be taught in our turn,” Thomas Greene said at a lyceum in New Bedford, Mass, in 1829.  “While we mingle together in these pursuits, we shall learn to know each other more intimately; we shall remove many of the prejudices which ignorance or partial acquaintance with each other has fostered…. We may return to our homes and firesides with kindlier feelings toward one another, because we have learned to know one another better.”

In small-town America, we may have different opinions. Still, we see each other in the coffee shop, the grocery store, in church, at high school sporting events, and at many other functions. They bring us together, but too often in a momentary, passing way. We know that many of the social groups that once gathered us for work, social activism, or play, are fraying, disbanding, or long gone.

So much of our communication these days takes place in relative isolation – on the computer, on our phones, or watching television. They have turned us inward. Once homes had front porches so that people could look out to the street and socialize with their neighbors, or with acquaintances as they passed by.

With society more divided today, with people participating in fewer activities than they used to, the newspaper becomes ever more valuable as a place for shared experiences and points of view. When we bowl with people whose political, social, and religious beliefs are different from our own, that shared time builds bridges of understanding and respect. When we have a common source of news that strives to reflect the diversity of a community, that strives to fairly inform citizens so they can make thoughtful decisions, we build bridges to cooperation.

“It is hardly impossible to overstate the value…of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar,” British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in the 1800s. “Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

Our opinion page offers something that is increasingly missing from our information world today – diversity of thought. We’ve wrapped ourselves in our own “filter bubbles” of information. Our social networks feed us the affirmation of beliefs we already hold close. They create an “us versus them” climate where mutual understanding becomes increasingly difficult.

Challenging thoughts are crucial to learning. When we are presented a point of view that gives us new information we have to digest in light of our current beliefs, it creates what researcher Travis Proulx calls “meaning threats.” These threats create a curiosity that leads us to seek new information and to take a different look at the foundations underpinning our current beliefs.

“But to feel curiosity, we have to be conscious that something’s being hidden,” Eli Pariser writes in his book “The Filter Bubble.” It is a book that describes how the internet is designed to give us only what confirms our beliefs. “Because the filter bubble hides things invisibly, we’re not as compelled to learn about what we don’t know. Stripped of the surprise of unexpected events and associations, a perfectly filtered world would provoke less learning.” It also leads us to be less understanding of others.

There are some beliefs that are too deeply held, too sensitive, or too explosive to be challenged without consequences. Newspapers lacking the courage to address these issues do a disservice to their readers, their communities, to the democracy created by the Founding Fathers, and to the soldiers who have died protecting our freedoms.

We do not intend to tell people what to think in our columns, or with the letters and guest editorials printed on this page. What we ask is that you consider the thoughts of the people who make up your community. We ask that you try to understand other points of view to see if there is a path that opens a way to greater understanding if not agreement.

To paraphrase author John Hart, “people walk the same road and see different things.” Once the path is worn, some only see the familiar, the safe, and when they see something new, they say it doesn’t belong – though it has been part of the landscape around them from the beginning. The learner smiles at this new revelation while those with closed minds may be angered or dismissive.

While the editorial page can reflect the opinion of the publisher of the newspaper, we always welcome different views from our subscribers. We may not agree with you, but we guarantee that your voice will be heard as well.

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