Hate In The Open Or Shut Your Traps

COMMENT

November 07, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

The Carroll County Times has created a column that regularly allows county residents with the most loathsome opinions to spread their filth under the cloak of anonymity.

Day after day, callers are able to disseminate misinformation and personal attacks that promote prejudice and intolerance. Some Carroll residents have dubbed this column the "Hateline."

Many of us who read it shake our heads in wonderment and disgust. It is hard to believe the nastiness, the name-calling, the ignorance that is contained in the snippets that are published daily.

Consider some of these examples that have appeared in recent weeks:

* "We're being held hostage by the black race."

* "Of course, whites can't riot to show our reaction because we're too busy working to pay taxes . . ."

* "When blacks attack whites, it's called an act of the repressed. When whites attack blacks, it's called racism."

* "It seems that members of minority groups are able to perpetrate all kinds of crimes and not be convicted."

* "Maybe if we didn't have to support so many of theirs, we could afford to have another one of our own."

* "Sterilization for all other convicted felons, drug sellers and users. If we don't stop breeding criminals we are finished as a civilized society."

* "For the first time in 57 years living in Taneytown I've had my Halloween decoration stolen. . . . Oh, the joys of housing developments! Yes, I would bet my life on it. It was one of you!"

Yes, under our system of government, people are entitled to express their opinions regardless of how vile. But when they are able to express them anonymously -- as in the "Hateline" -- they don't have to be accountable for what they say.

Ideas, words and expressions are the coin of our government. To have a free market in ideas, you have to stand behind the ones you believe in just as in the free market economy, people have to stand behind their products and services. In a vigorous democracy, we have the freedom to say hurtful things about other people as long as we do it openly and take responsibility for the words and expressions we use.

People with differing views have to engage each other in open debate. If the system is working properly, the strengths and weaknesses of each side will be exposed. And out of this open discussion, the majority of the citizens can decide who is right.

Newspapers have always encouraged their readers to write letters for publication.

Virtually all newspapers follow the standard practice of requiring letter writers to sign their names and then verifying that the person who signed the letter wrote it. Responsible magazines, newspapers and radio programs that accept phoned comments follow the same practice.

But why would anyone want to write a letter or make a call that also prominently mentions your name when you can call a "Hateline" and have published whatever irresponsible thought jumps to mind?

While these items appeal to our voyueristic inclinations -- much in the same manner that the social and emotional freaks who appear regularly on Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, Oprah and Donahue titillate us and cause us to laugh nervously -- we should recognize that these opinions are not harmless. They are systematically poisoning Carroll's political dialogue.

The impact of these opinions is akin to an economic phenomenon that Thomas Gresham described in the 16th century: Thoughtless opinions drive out thoughtful opinions much the way bad money drove good money out of circulation in Gresham's day.

What is the result when good ideas are driven out? Instead of having an elevated public dialogue that appeals to our better instincts, we have a public debate that appeals to our worst impulses.

We also have elected officials who shy away from taking reasonable stands on issues because they are afraid of the anonymous and misinformed sniping that will follow.

On a regular basis, the column carries derogatory statements against women, foreigners, people living in Baltimore and anyone who is deemed to be different. Attacks against people -- ranging from Pennsylvanians who dare to drive through Carroll to get to work in Baltimore to women who hold full-time jobs -- appear regularly.

Many of the calls to the "Hateline" deal with serious issues -- the growing crime rate, senseless violence, the appearance of a growing and restless underclass -- but most of the responses don't illuminate the issue or contribute to achieving some type of solution. Most are merely verbal and emotional grenades.

People who make bigoted and prejudicial statements should be willing to admit publicly they hold those views.

If they are unwilling to admit to them, they are cowards and none of us is obligated to pay any attention to them.

We should not be giving these people a free ride.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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