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Provoking discussion on the Opinion page

Provoking discussion on the Opinion page

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Several letters on our Opinion page of late have gotten people talking and complaining.

One in particular got a few people threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

On June 22, reader Linda Price wrote to urge women to “behave in ways to inspire respect.” She was responding to an earlier letter, which generated some buzz of its own, when reader Joanne Fox urged women to “take steps to defend yourself” against rape on America’s campuses.

Linda encouraged women to think about four things:

“1. Is she dressing in a refined way or does her dress imitate that of a prostitute? 2. If she drinks, does she limit her drinking so that she is always in control? 3. Is she careful about where she goes with a date? Even going to a movie that shows sexual promiscuity may bring on an unwanted response from the guy. 4. If she uses vulgar language, that may cause disrespect.”

Many readers and commenters reacted in anger to this letter, saying that she was, in effect, blaming the victim of a sexual assault, saying that she was doing something that was “asking for it.” Most of the backlash was aimed at the letter writer, but a few were directed at the Register for even publishing such a missive.

“Is today April Fools?” one commenter asked.

“Is the publication of this letter an indication that the NV Register has hit bottom?!” another wrote.

“I was about to cancel my subscription if they weren’t going to at least print one rebuttal to this,” wrote another commenter, who had submitted a letter in response.

I think it’s worth talking about this letter, and letters in general.

To start, it’s important to understand that we rarely reject a letter outright, at least if it is from a Napa County resident or addresses a matter of significant concern to the county. I read every letter and try to verify factual claims, or at least ask for evidence for specific assertions. I also often request revisions, either to correct factual errors or tone down rhetoric that is overheated or potentially libelous.

What we don’t do is pick and choose among opinions. We’ve run letters for and against many controversial topics. We’ve run opinions that are clearly unpopular, such as Linda’s letter. We’ve run fun, frivolous, or even nonsensical letters, such as a recent somewhat mystifying submission about cats on parade.

One of the objectives of an opinion page is to be interesting and generate discussion. These recent letters, good and bad, popular and unpopular, do precisely that. I read Linda’s letter and was originally inclined not to run it – it struck me as objectionable for blaming the victim of sexual assaults. But I stepped back from my own feelings about it and concluded that it was likely to provoke an interesting, useful, and perhaps even painful discussion.

Interestingly, Linda herself says she was surprised by the vehemence of the comments, which she had not read until I called her on Wednesday, more than a week after the letter appeared. She said she didn’t intend to provoke an uproar, just to offer some advice so that “mothers might show it to their daughters.”

“Sexual misconduct is really getting out of our control in our society … we just need to look at ways to conquer the problem,” she said.

Surprised as she was, nothing about the discussion over the letter was much of a surprise to me, including the accusation that we were remiss in publishing such a letter to begin with.

It would be very easy to fill the opinion pages with uncontroversial material, but what would be the point? I decided long ago not to publish what I call “Flowers That Bloom in the Spring” editorials, pointless meditations on this and that take no stand and provoke no discussion. I don’t want to be needlessly provocative, but provoking some thought and discussion is never a bad thing for a newspaper to be doing.

And rest assured that if you don’t like something we’ve published and want to submit a letter to the editor to complain, I’d be happy to entertain it for our “letters” section. That’s what the opinion page is there for.

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @nvreditor.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.

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