Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
As a columnist, I identify with that larger community identified by National Society of Newspaper Columnists President Ben Pollock as, “…feature and metro, humor and kitchen-table writers.” I have to admit that for me, it's a comfortable zone.
My degree is in Political Science, although I’m far more fascinated by political processes than political issues. When I first started my columnistic gigs 6 years ago, I began by writing some pretty pointed pieces. While they were "satisfyin’ writin’" in a visceral sort of way, the reactions were disturbing. It must be a fundamental law of the universe that people who agree with you will never write, while those who disagree will do nothing but. I never received a death threat, but the tone and tenor of those responses nevertheless left me reluctant to walk the streets at night.
I fully understand that there are those who thrive on controversy. They seek to provoke and rile. As one fellow said to me, “Of course I get them angry. Anger is readership.” This kind of issue baiting and audience manipulation I found disturbing, though not as disturbing as watching otherwise intelligent readers who didn't know they were being led around by their spleens.
The sad thing is, that’s what the climate has wrought. There are folks out there on both sides who are making large sums of money by getting and keeping people angry. Call me wimpy, if you must. But I figure that it is better to write of those things that unite us, rather than those which divide us.
There are a host of elements in life that are common to the human experience. Birth, school, falling and staying in love, raising children, work, friends are just a few. It really doesn’t matter where in society’s strata one finds themselves, there’s always something that we all have in common. That, I decided, would be my canvas.
The response has been very positive, and personally gratifying. Maybe there are columnists who think that having 873 hate letters in the comment section means they’re reaching their audience. But there is danger there. Playing with human emotions risks human tragedy.
These are different times. People have been living under great stress for a long time. Jobs have been lost, schools are closing, homes are being foreclosed. Those who are still relatively solvent struggle mightily against the two-headed hammer of debt and taxes. Mired in desperate circumstances, far too many people are balanced on a razor’s edge of rationality. In my view, it just doesn’t pay to deliberately feed the anger.
Issues require discussion and debate. I get that. Part of reaching a national consensus lies in hashing things out. But the whole idea of debate means when one side is talking, the other side is listening. It requires both sides to consider opposing points rather than dismissing them out of hand because of their ideological source. As a political scientist (budding) I don’t see discussion; I don’t see debate. I see two sides standing across from each other with red faces and bulging neck veins, screaming senselessly.
That’s just not a back yard I want to play in.
People look for a safe harbor; a place where they can seek moments of humor, of quiet reflection. Where they can find those moments to read something that causes them to lean back, sigh softly, and whisper, “Yeah.” It is a welcome moment of peace in a world gone mad, and if I can provide that moment of respite with a few hundred words of memory or diversion, then I accept that as my calling.
We can either stoke the fires, or calm the waters. It is our choice.
For better or for worse, we are writers. We are involved in Humankind.