Grumpy Old Man: With free speech come responsibilities – and standards

The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre was an expensive learning moment. Let’s not ignore the lesson, starting in our own Letters section.

A policeman stands guard outside the French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" in Paris, February 9, 2006. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A policeman stands guard outside the French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" in Paris, February 9, 2006.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You might be surprised how many strange offerings I come across as The Jerusalem Post’s letters editor.
Some are from what appear to be gentle, if clueless, souls: “Hello…. I [was] directed to your site while searching for a particular scarf. I see that one is posted in a very good article about [the] Israeli keffiyeh. Is there any way that someone from your staff could possibly send me any information? Or if you have an extra one laying [sic] around….”
Then there are the schemers: “If the Post or Israel or [the] Jews would give me $30,000, then we will give you or Israel very vital intelligence regarding Arabs so Israel will survive long and win the war. Thank you in advance for trusting me and [for your] remittance to my bank account in [the] Philippines.”
And there are lots of letters from out-andout wackos: “I seriously doubt that there is even so much as a snowflake’s chance in hell that you would have ANY interest at all in diminishing the horrors prophesied in Chapter 12, Verse 1 of the Book of Daniel…. But, because I have already contacted Russia Today and Iranian Press TV with an offer to Skype a theological discussion with the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ‘authorities’ in an attempt to avoid Armageddon, I am sending the same suggestion to you. Don’t worry. I’m not delusional.”
My least favorite, however, are letters from people who for some reason can’t understand why others who are similar to them in every way – except in their opinions – deserve space in the Post’s letters column. One such reader has not only appealed directly and repeatedly to the paper’s editor-in-chief with the demand that he fire me for letting a certain letter writer appear, this person has gone so far as to lodge complaints with a pro-Israel press watchdog.
To judge from the numerous inquiries into the matter this watchdog has never sent me, it has far bigger and smellier fish to fry – as well as a much more astute grasp of the large print regarding certain basic freedoms.
IF THERE ever was a good time to discuss one of those freedoms, especially as it pertains to the only place in a newspaper that rank-and-file readers can make their voices heard, it is now – with the blood spattered last week barely dry on the walls at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly that has long strived to piss off as many people as possible. No one is equating the business end of a Kalashnikov with complaints to an editor-in-chief or press watchdog, but the desired result is much the same.
Which is not to say I’m Charlie Hebdo. I have my ground rules. With every letter to the editor received, I reply with a lengthy form letter that starts out this way: “Letters should be in clear, concise and civil English. Sarcasm is okay; nastiness is not…. I am always on the lookout for letters that are unique in that they express an as-yet unexpressed idea….”
I must add here that ideas need not follow a certain political or ideological line. In fact, there is little that is out of bounds save for exhortations to violence, incitement against individuals or entire groups, crucial statements that are libelous, demonstrably false or merely impossible to prove, and comments that gratuitously insult or defame.
Two of the most problematic accusations I come across in letters, and on a regular basis, are “anti-Semitism” and “treason.” This is not because they don’t apply – in certain cases, I’d say they’re too subtle. It’s because they’re thrown about with such reckless abandon that they become almost meaningless. Unfortunately, when they do apply, they can be sloughed off as nothing more than alarmist hyperbole and an attempt to squelch legitimate debate.
Another example of a problematic opinion arrived earlier this week in response to the outrages perpetrated the week before in Paris.
The letter starts out within the realm of the acceptable: “Europe can continue its hectic descent into chaos and decadence, or it can at this late hour awaken. The rampant forces of Islamo-fascism are eating away at its will to resist, and have already done much to erode its commitment to even the memory of those values of liberty and human rights of which Europe and Britain were the originators.”
But from here, the reader’s argument descends into anguished broadsides against an entire religion and its history, much of which can easily be countered by Middle Eastern scholars – who in no way might be seen as particularly sympathetic to the Arab or Muslim worlds, and certainly not at the expense of the Jews and their history.
It’s one thing to say that the correlation between Islam and terrorism cannot be ignored.
It’s something else altogether to paint an entire religion and its followers with a broad brush. But even that isn’t enough for this genuinely tormented reader, who concludes his letter with the following: “The time has come to say the totally politically incorrect statement: Islam is the enemy and must be erased from the world before [the world] will know peace again. We must start thinking about destroying this evil philosophy.
To paraphrase Churchill, we cannot afford this time to be half-blind until we are half-ready.”
These words come not from a clueless soul, a schemer or a wacko, nor, for that matter, from a hater. They come from a highly educated, thoughtful, decent person whose deeply opinionated missives have stood out for at least as long as I’ve been in charge of the Letters section, owing not only to their wellstyled prose but to their concise, focused, penetrating and, yes, logical approach to the issue at hand.
Sadly, I had to call him and tell him that this time he would not be published.
Talk about frustrating! I have 40 column inches to fill each day, and so many of the letters I get, while interesting and reasonably well written, nevertheless offer little more than a ho-hum, been there/heard that argument rather than a brash, vibrant and nourishing contribution to what should be a lively and ringing yet civilized debate about issues that most likely will shape our future.
SOME READERS of this column probably think they’ll have the last laugh. After all, passages I deemed unsuitable for the Letters section nonetheless ended up here. Not much in the way of censorship.
This is true. But the writer of this particular letter told me that upon sending it, he had been conscious of the fact that its dark tenor might lead it only to an editor’s spike. He was gracious enough to let me use it here not as an example of how to do something, but as an example of how not to, at least in my eyes.
He threw down a caveat, however, saying that in five or 10 years, such statements could be the norm in letters sections. After all, opinions, like journalistic standards, are an evolving universe.
Indeed they are. But in the year 2015, I’ll continue to aim for logic, reason and decency, even when there’s so little of it around us. For while we might not be Charlie Hebdo, we certainly cannot be fellow travelers of the forces of darkness and intolerance. And we can’t ever allow ourselves to forget that.