The Press Opinion pages allow the expression of partisan animosity, hatred and even name-calling to a degree. We follow to the extent we can the interpretation of the Bill of Rights that the remedy for problematic speech is more and better speech.
Some people think this encourages inappropriate and unproductive impulses in others and occasionally someone will ask why we don’t censor it. Recently, a couple of readers urged us to suppress letters by their partisan foes — one hating Democrats and the other hating President Trump. The first step toward limiting free speech always seems to be blocking opposing views.
Let’s start by remembering that there is no fixed position of political virtue toward which mankind should be heading. There are only and always multiple desires, needs and perspectives competing for their appropriate place and share of democratic governance, and they are constantly changing. These may be expressed positively or negatively, even hatefully.
Suppression of partisan hatred would frustrate people who have such feelings and entrench the feelings further. They would miss the opportunity to get their views and thoughts into the open and work them out.
For individuals, achieving the goal of expressing their animosity on can allow them to move on to hearing others’ views and thinking further about their own.
For society, getting an accurate sense of partisan animosity is necessary to understanding the complex dynamics of social political engagement. For example, one reason partisan hatred can be so intense is that there is no taboo against it, the way society disapproves of animosities based on race, religion, sex and ancestry. And having a shared enemy can provide a stronger group bond than having less clear shared interests.
News media, especially regional and local, can promote understanding of these drivers of partisan emotion through their news and commentary coverage and by giving people an almost unrestricted chance to express their views to their community. We won’t allow letter writers to urge that others be harmed, but otherwise they may present any legitimate view.
Many national news media, by contrast, manage their coverage to predominantly appeal to one group of partisans or another, and give citizens very little chance to express themselves. The national market is so big that an audience of intense and loyal partisans is very lucrative — perhaps even more valuable to advertisers than less emotional nonpartisan and weakly partisan viewers and readers.
The resulting mediascape filled with partisan animosity is very disturbing to many, even among those caught up in it on one side or another. Letter writers often suggest people should behave better and worry about what the country has become.
I think Americans are working toward a new norm of what’s acceptable in partisan views and expression for this age of vastly increased and accelerated communication. As this new consensus on civility emerges, most individuals will restrain themselves to remain within it so they may enjoy the benefits of participating in society.
For individuals and social groups alike, such animosity and hatred bear within them the motivation to overcome them.
As with all negative emotions, anger and hate are natural to people and can be beneficial and useful if their targets are very narrow and their duration very limited. They help focus on an urgent fight at hand and improve the chance of surviving.
But if anger and hate are directed at too many or for too long, they dissipate the ability to engage and blind one to the many better opportunities in life. Lasting strong negative emotions also can undermine health.
The open airing of people’s diverse views contributes to an honest and accurate understanding of them and society. And that’s where the need and desire will be found to develop better ways of engaging and moving forward.
Email Kevin Post, editorial page editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.