I CONDUCTED an experiment this week: I published a letter to the editor from an unapologetic white supremacist, who was preaching points that no decent human being could possibly endorse. And I waited to see what happened.
I considered writing this column to run the same day, or at least including an editor’s note, but I wanted to see whether readers would be outraged by the letter or by our decision to publish it. That is, whether people would recognize that publishing the letter was an extreme version of what we do five days a week: provide a public forum where we hold a mirror up to our community, so it can examine itself, warts and all.
I don’t mean to imply that most people in South Carolina believe, as this writer stated, that “Christian slavery” was a good thing and that black people should be grateful that their ancestors were enslaved — which means they were stolen from their homes, brought to our country in chains, sold to the highest bidder, forced to do whatever work their owners required, beaten, raped, ripped apart from their families. I don’t even mean to imply that a large minority of South Carolinians believe that; I’m confident that they do not.
But the sad truth is that you don’t have to look hard to find South Carolinians who believe that slavery was good because, in their view, black people are inherently inferior to white people. They even feel comfortable attaching their names to their warped views. And I believe all South Carolinians need to know that.
In addition to writing columns, part of my job is to read letters to the editor and select the ones to publish. That means that every day I read grossly misinformed opinions and the opinions of people with the most extreme views on the left and the right, all of which I find maddening. It means that every day I decide to publish letters that I disagree with or even find offensive, because that’s what providing a public forum entails. It means I publish letters from people who share my position on a given issue but argue the case in a way that actually hands ammunition to people who take the opposite position.
I believe I have an obligation not only to provide a forum but especially to publish letters that are critical of what The State has published and, even more so, what I have published on the opinion and commentary pages and, more so still, what I have written. I also believe that, on occasion, I have an obligation to hold up that unflattering mirror, to make sure that people in our community understand how ugly some of our neighbors are.
What I don’t have an obligation to do — what I have an obligation not to do — is publish letters that state or imply as fact things that are in fact not factual. If you say I’m crazy to believe what I wrote, I’ll probably print your letter. If you say I’m crazy to believe something I never said I believe, I won’t print it. If you write to say the governor didn’t try hard enough to stop the gas tax, I might publish it (unless I’m just tired of that topic); if you say he performs ritualistic killings of legislators, I will not print it. And yes, sometimes untrue claims slip by me.
The result of my experiment was gratifying: Only a handful of readers contacted us to express outrage over the decision to publish the white supremacist letter on Wednesday.
The most interesting response was from a reader who wanted to know what’s out of bounds. That’s a difficult question to answer, particularly when it comes to race. We receive a lot of letters that many readers would consider racist, but that are not overtly so. Should I publish even the least ambiguous ones and risk suggesting that such opinions are within the bounds of decency? Or should I toss them and deny a voice to people whose opinions about economics or crime or authority simply sound like they’re driven by race?
Wednesday’s letter was in no way ambiguous: It was so unequivocably and unapologetically racist that no one who wasn’t also a white supremacist could possibly deny how vile it was. It was, in fact, the perfect mirror.
I changed up the experiment on Facebook and asked our online staff to post an explanation with the letter — “Our editorial board publishes letters like this so we’ll know that our neighbors actually believe this sort of thing.” And, I assume as a result, nearly everyone focused their ire on the letter writer, or on each other, but not on the newspaper for publishing the letter. When I read the 186 comments that had been posted in the first 24 hours, I counted only three that took us to task for publishing the letter. That was gratifying.
Most were shocked by the letter, which was more gratifying still, because we had in fact forced people to see something they didn’t realize was there. A few were grateful that we did this. Of course, that included the woman who wrote, “Thank you for posting the letter so we don’t forget that people, ‘Good Christian people’ honestly believe this.”
I usually don’t respond to online comments, but this one I can’t resist answering: Good Christian people do not in fact believe this. At least not anymore. The people who believe this are masquerading as Christians. Actual Christians strive to love our God with all our heart and soul and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves — and to leave no doubt that we thoroughly reject such evil.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.