David Bly: Name-calling fast way to lose the argument


Why can’t I call someone an idiot, a moron, an imbecile? Why can’t I say a certain politician is a crook and that everyone in city hall is taking bribes? Why can’t I describe someone else’s comments as hogwash, lies and propaganda? What’s the point of freedom of speech if I can’t speak my mind?

What’s with all these restrictions on letters to the editor?

From time to time, we get that sort of reaction, implied or stated, when certain letters don’t make it into print. On the surface, it seems we’re at odds with ourselves when we espouse freedom of expression on one hand while, on the other, rejecting letters because of certain content.

The letters page is an important and lively forum where a broad spectrum of views can be expressed. But without rules and limitations, it could quickly degenerate into a swamp of invective, hatred, insults and downright nastiness.

The digital world has proved that. It’s why the Times Colonist and many other publications have done away with online comments. It might be a few who spoil it for the many, but it’s why we choose not to allow absolute freedom to say what you want on our pages and websites.

That’s why, among other reasons, we select some letters for publication and reject others. First, we have a legal obligation to ensure we don’t publish material that is defamatory or libellous.

The law says you can’t call the prime minister — or anyone else — a crook or a criminal, unless they have actually broken the law and have been convicted in court. You can write that a public official has been taking bribes — if you have proof and documents that will stand up in court. (If that’s the case, we have reporters who would be interested.)

Some issues have shades of grey. Can you call someone a liar, if he or she has said or written something that is clearly untrue? Perhaps, but it’s usually not a good idea. To say someone lied is to say that person deliberately told an untruth with the purpose of deceiving. A person who states an untruth, believing that statement to be true, is mistaken, not a liar.

And so we counsel letter-writers to take the “however” approach: “The writer stated X; however, I have found Y to be the case.” That way, you set the record straight without calling someone a liar.

It’s the safer way, and it’s the civil way.

We insist that letters be civil in tone. That’s a rather subjective term, because some issues and some actions call for sharp reprimands. Sometimes, people deserve a good verbal spanking. But it’s best done by criticizing the act, not the person. An argument that depends on personal attacks and insults is a lost argument.

We go on the assumption people in high public office have thicker skins than most, that being a target goes with the job. That’s why we allowed someone to write recently that she has realized “Canada elected a popinjay, more interested in photo-ops and selfies.”

So why can’t you call someone an idiot or a moron? Because your mother taught you better, that’s why. We’re here as referees to ensure the tone of the debate is kept within certain bounds. While it’s not an exact science, it’s not arbitrary. It’s based on experience, training and ethical guidelines.

There are other reasons we don’t print some letters. Length is often an issue. It states in the upper right corner of the letters page that letters should not exceed 250 words, but writers often overlook that restriction.

If a letter is not too much over the limit, we can edit it to length. If we think there’s a good chance we’ll publish the letter, we ask the writer to come up with a shorter version. Almost without exception, people are happy to do that, and the result is often a much better letter.

Letter-writers are usually restricted to one letter a month. Many write more than that, depending on us to keep track, and that’s just fine.

Letters that are obviously part of a concerted campaign (and we can tell) don’t usually make it into print. Nor do letters sent to other publications.

We don’t publish letters to third parties or anonymous letters — if you have the courage of your convictions, you won’t be ashamed to attach your name to it.

We don’t look for ways to reject letters. In fact, we deem every letter to be a candidate for publication unless something dictates otherwise.

We like letters, and so do readers: Surveys consistently show the letters page is one of the better-read pages in the newspaper. It wouldn’t be a favourite page if we didn’t adhere to certain standards.

So keep it civil, and keep writing.


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