A war of words over words about war

We want and need local voices about this blood-soaked conflict in this too-small world. How can we keep an honest conversation safe and productive?

Editorials represent the collective voice of The Commons and are written by any or all of the editors or, occasionally, by members of the Vermont Independent Media board of directors. We present our point of view not to have the last word, but the first: We heartily encourage letters from readers, and we love spirited dialogue even if - especially if - you disagree with us.

Send your responses to [email protected].

Since October, barely a week has passed without a reader slamming The Commons and those of us who edit this section as "antisemitic" or "complicit in genocide" on the basis of something that was or was not published in Voices about the war in Gaza.

We acknowledge the pain felt by readers, many of whom have family and close connections to the people in the center of this blood-soaked conflict in this too-small world.

From the safety of our desks in Vermont, we see a situation complicated by horrible policy, racial injustice, and bad behavior over time, with shades of gray and with complexities and paradoxes that many people with greater minds than ours, with deep knowledge and perspective on history and geopolitics, have failed to solve over generations.

Over the past couple of months, we have met face-to-face with a number of readers who have been upset with us for printing contributions from others - contributions that they believe have crossed a line. Despite their opposing views, these readers have something in common: a remarkable number of fears and concerns about the capacity of the written word in these pages to affect their personal safety and the safety of their loved ones here.

These readers have spoken thoughtfully and respectfully about the role and responsibility of a newspaper to be a public forum. They have all said individually, almost word for word, "I don't envy your position."

Sometimes just listening to one another helps. One reader went from calling The Commons a "piece-of-shit newspaper" on our Facebook page to buying your editor a beer and has become a committed resource to helping us do better.

We all have the opportunity to grow and to become better humans in the face of this international bloodbath.

* * *

With that said, our work in publishing this material is only one part of the responsible public forum equation. The other side is how those words are received, absorbed, and used once they are released to the wild. How should we, as newspaper readers (and we include ourselves among our own readers), best use this community conversation as a resource and not as a volatile weapon of trauma, hurt, and outrage?

Your views might well be irreconcilable with the views of someone who is baring their soul in our pages. And in a time of war, it is easy - too easy - to write off others' interpretations and lived experiences as reprehensible, amoral, or worse. It's easy to bemoan that the newspaper is "platforming" these points of view or dismiss us for "parroting propaganda."

Stop and think: The vast majority of our readers and contributors to this section are not sociopaths. We can all start from the point of assuming that all the injustice, death, destruction, violence, and starvation is, was, and will be reprehensible, no matter who perpetrates it on whom. Who among those who are publicly engaging on the issue in southern Vermont would seriously hold the desire for the violent death of anyone on either side of this issue?

When we get beyond accusing one another of doing just that, we can start from the perspective that 1) yes, terror, sadness, and moral outrage are understandable but 2) there is plenty to go around for everybody here. And then, we can at least start to talk to one another and not talk at one another. We can at least start to listen, learn, and think about other perspectives even as we hold tight to our own moral compasses. And no, after all of that, we don't have to change our minds.

Your editors look at every piece that we publish as offering a new perspective to add to our understanding of a greater whole. A view from the other side of the issue offers insight into what your neighbors are thinking and why.

And, yes, sometimes those perspectives are difficult to read. And yes, reasonable people will disagree about where one draws lines of what is and isn't acceptable public discourse.

And, no, we don't want to reduce this complicated conversation to a facile both-sides-ism that dismisses everyone's pain and moral compasses.

The larger issue is that, we, as readers and stewards of the news, need to be capable of acknowledging multiple truths. And these truths can be maddeningly and heartbreakingly contradictory.

* * *

The easiest thing in the world would be to do what some community newspapers have done: ignore the issue, absent a direct local news hook.

Of course we could define The Commons' remit as purely local. One can even make a compelling argument that this war of words in our pages is not helpful and, in fact, can stoke the heat of division and that it would be in everyone's best interest.

That would also be unacceptable. The Commons has always been a venue for readers with a local connection who have strong opinions about these issues and about the history that set the stage for what is happening in our world today - whether it's about a local issue in our own backyard or a geopolitical disaster half a world away. It would be completely incompatible with our philosophy of seeing The Commons and your Voices section as a window on the larger world.

The more difficult solution is that we are forcing ourselves to learn how to do this right.

We will continue to inform ourselves, to ask questions, to seek multiple perspectives, and to be thoughtful about what we publish about this war. In our editing process we strive to verify what we can against sources that are trustworthy. We are taking steps to draw some lines where we can all agree the rhetoric shouldn't go.

We will continue to learn and try to rise to the responsibility of being a newspaper that lets you see the world a little differently after you finish reading it.

We will continue to talk with, meet with, and engage with you, our readers, about these lines and how to create an honest public forum where we can make a difficult journey together and create community in the process, where we all can make The Commons a responsible and responsive space for issues that are important to our area.

That's why we're here.

This Voices Editorial was submitted to The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates