The “restricted number” call came in at 4:56 am and the man — who did not leave his name — told me in no uncertain terms that an old column of mine had it all wrong. Basically, that in criticizing the NRA, I was criticizing the only organization that promotes gun safety, and that “you people” were disgusting. Earlier in the month, someone else emailed me — again, with no name attached — that “the same mommies who demand action who aligned themselves with the violent and Marxist BLM…(expletive) the mommies they need to go back to the glory hole because that’s how disgusting these women are.”
So, here’s the thing: We live in a democracy, and democracy means all opinions can be expressed, and it also means that you attach your name to your opinion. There are several salient differences between my opinion and theirs, but the most important one, even more so than the content itself, is that I’m writing an opinion piece published in a public paper, and readers can choose to read the column or not. I am not invading anyone’s phone number or personal email address. I’m not cussing, I’m not threatening. But most important of all, I’m attaching my name to my opinion, as any non-coward would do.
I have long loved the tradition of “op-ed,” which comes from the phrase “opposite the editorial page,” and is basically a column that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper’s editorial board. Editorial pages have been printed by newspapers for centuries, but the origin of what we now consider the op-ed page started in 1921 by Herbert Bayard Swope. When he took over as editor of The New York Evening World, he wrote: “It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting, so I devised a method of cleaning off the page opposite the editorial, which became the most important in America … and thereon I decided to print opinions.” He included only opinions by employees of the paper, though, and it wasn’t until 1970 that having contributors outside the newspaper were championed, under the direction of The New York Times editor John B. Oakes.
What an excellent tradition! I teach the form to my grad students, who often don’t realize its history or current prevalence. I read columns voraciously, and have followed favorite columnists for decades, everyone from Dave Barry to Margaret Renkl to the other Colorado Sun columnists. I myself have had my opinion swayed by columns, and I’ve even been begrudgingly happy to read dissenting opinions. That’s the whole point.
And I love, love, love writing them. I’ve been a columnist for one venue or another for about 20 years. I believe it to be one of the best ways to continue civil discourse in a country and world that needs plenty of it. I’d like to think my columns — which often focus on social and environmental justice and love of the West — are respectful and well-researched and civil. But the backlash is increasingly and decidedly uncivil. Gun control and border issues — they unsurprisingly illicit the most hate mail, and I mentally thicken my thick skin anytime such pieces come out. Ninety percent of the time, these responses come with names attached, as they should. But such pieces also bring out the cowards who prefer to call from secret numbers in the middle of night. These calls are acts of bullying and misogyny — these individuals intend to scare me, of course.
Sure, it’s almost enough to make me want to stop — but scaring people and silencing people is exactly how democracy fades. So to the late night caller: Take your opinion seriously. Write a letter publicly, with name attached, in a respected public venue.
On a lighter note, I’ve gotten some seriously good fan mails, too, which I save in a folder, because they mean the world to me. One woman told me I saved her life, others told me I saved their marriage, a few voted differently, and best of all, a few simply said they felt less alone. So I urge readers to consider sending a kind note to someone today — or, at the very least, to check yourself when you feel the urge to silence or scare a person. That ain’t what democracy — or decency — is about.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to email@example.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)