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updated: 2/20/2014 12:57 PM

Zealousness and tolerance can coexist

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A democratic society thrives on tolerance. In a strong democracy, free citizens are defined not just by what they are allowed to say but also, in at least equal measure, by what they allow others to say.

That thinking is the lifeblood of the newspaper's "letters to the editor" section. Here is a space on the editorial page almost entirely owned and controlled by the people who choose to speak their minds publicly on issues they consider important. The letters column ought to be -- and is, actually -- a gurgling caldron of the goals, passions and ideas competing for attention and action within a community or state, its power derived not from the unanimity of thoughts expressed but from the variety.

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In such an environment, in such a society as ours, writing a letter to the editor ought not be an act of personal bravery. We are not some emerging Third World revolutionary autocracy. Ah, but, sadly, sometimes ...

Every now and then, I'm pained to hear some letter writer report that following publication of his or her musings, the home phone rang in the late evening and the writer was subjected to a vitriolic outburst from some, always anonymous, objector. Usually the writers in such cases are more annoyed than frightened, but the situations can be unsettling.

Last week, a writer forwarded to me a letter -- anonymous, of course -- that she received in the mail following publication of some of her ideas. As a veteran newsman with plenty of experience with gutter language, I'm not easily shocked by almost any level of profanity, but the degree of vulgarity in this diatribe would call attention to itself in a Skid Row tavern. This written by someone who presumably considers himself or herself a patriot and addressed to someone the hate-filled author did not know or ever meet.

One can only shake his head and wonder -- as did the recipient of the letter, who closed her letter to me asking, "I wonder, is it the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat? What malady engenders such hate?"

I wish I knew. I can only say it's not democracy. Nor is it ideology. This situation clearly involved someone who claimed to hold conservative values; I've heard equally egregious reports involving self-described liberals who took offense at an idea or expression they read in a letter to the editor. Rather than test their ideas in the field of public discourse, such individuals cower in their dark closets, dip their pens in vitriol and spew their poison from behind a shield that distorts and demeans the notion of free speech.

Fortunately, they are the few, the rare exception, though they manage to pollute the commenting stream at online conversations so thoroughly that many respectable online publishers, like the Daily Herald, have come to forbid anonymity in an effort to contain them.

And fortunately, the vast majority, those citizens who respect the tenets of their democracy and aim for persuasion over persecution, refuse to be daunted. They, like another person who wrote us this week, see the value of "a forum in which to learn how other people feel, consequently helping to formulate and express opinions of my own."

"Once," this writer continued, "I was called out for being too judgmental about someone I disagreed with ... They were right. I try harder now to respect the opinions of others, despite my zealousness for what I consider to be just."

Yes, the two notions can coexist, zealousness and tolerance. And the product is something wonderful. It's called democracy. Oh, for the day when everyone practices it.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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