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posted: 5/29/2014 1:01 AM

Democracy, dialogue and a place for tolerance

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Sometimes I do wonder what certain people think democracy is.

We lost a subscriber this week. It happens. We never like it. We want our customers to enjoy us, to appreciate our company, to rely on us. We strive in that vein to be a good friend. But this one we lost apparently for that very reason, for the fact that we tolerated the ideas of someone the now-former customer could not tolerate. We lost one friend by accommodating another.

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Should that happen? And in a society whose very foundations rest on the bedrock notion that every individual will have his own individual ideas? Whose philosophical underpinnings rise out of the phrase attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it"?

It was a simple letter to the editor. It wasn't offensive by any social standard. It didn't build its ideas from questionable facts; it merely expressed a personal interpretation of facts that almost no one denies. Nor did it directly insult anyone, though it addressed its points in uncompromising language. It simply made a case.

That, it seems to me is what letters to the editor are for. Where in society is there a place for the shared, unfettered expressions of "the people," the everyday citizens who do not, as victims of the press sometimes lament, buy ink by the barrel, if it is not in this small quadrangle of near-absolute liberty on the Opinion page?

Some readers deeply resent the free rein with which we moderate our Letters to the Editor column. They wish we would be more disciplined about the "facts" we allow and about writers who regard as facts statements that others dispute or that are open to interpretation because of source or context. I ask these readers to remember Voltaire. And if not him George Washington, who warned that "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

How, I wonder, do we call ourselves patriots if we do not tolerate, perhaps to some extent invite the contrary ideas of others? And where can we hope to find all the wild variety of ideas if not in the newspaper -- and especially that one corner of the paper specifically reserved for the voice of "the people"?

I am not blind to the fact that a person who would surrender his friendship with us simply because we endured the presence of a person whom he could easily disregard may not be getting everything from our relationship he could. He may not be appreciating the wide coverage of suburban news, the broad reporting on sports and governments and schools, the delicious garnishes of information about homes and automobiles and food and health and entertainment. And I take some consolation in the belief that the need for those things will eventually bring him back.

But I still think we all may sometimes need to be called out for our prejudices and our intolerant moments. If we consider ourselves citizens of this democracy, and certainly if we consider ourselves patriots, we ought at least to be called upon to remember that what we stand for is not bland uniformity but rich variety. And I delight in the friends who stay with us in appreciation of that call.

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

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