In our contemporary political discourse, too often dominated by right versus wrong and left versus right, I receive e-mail and phone messages from practically every political background imaginable.
Expressing how one feels directly to the columnist, posting online, or writing a letter to the editor remains a healthy aspect of our democracy. Sadly, it feels with rapidly increasing regularity, many who respond to columns are unable to delineate their difference with the point of view taken and make personal attacks on the writer.
Often these emotionally charged pronouncements bear little resemblance to what was actually written. I thought I would take this opportunity to translate some of the frequent messages that I receive.
Let me begin by dispelling what is a common myth. As the author of the column, I have very little involvement in the title. It's quite possible for the same column to have as many titles as publications in which it appears.
This is important for those who simply read the title without bothering to read the column in order to form a conclusion.
Remember the adage: "You can't judge a book by its cover." It still holds true.
Closely related is the reader who does not read the entire column before drawing his or her own conclusions. It is amazing to see how many responses to my columns are drawn from a single word in the body of the column, completely unrelated to the thesis statement.
There are those who may read the entire column and still manage to craft a response bearing no resemblance to anything written. This is the pre-emptive e-mail.
They have a criticism and they're going to express it. There is no burden on them to relate the criticism to the columnist's topic.
The most common and perhaps most overrated message is the proverbial, "That was a great column" or "That column was really bad." The latter quote was sanitized for the PG-13 audience.
What the individual is really saying is, "Your column coincided with my thinking on the subject, therefore, it is good" or "your column was the antithesis of my thinking, therefore, it is bad."
Those who must begin by informing me they always read my column, though they don't always agree, amuse me. I aligned them with the group who normally agree with my columns, except for this particular occasion, unearthing a motivation to express their dissent that was never present when they concurred.
Agreeing or disagreeing with the columnist is not nearly as important as whether the column made you think.
There is the dreaded point/counterpoint e-mail.
Derived from the old "Saturday Night Live" routine with Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain. Aykroyd would begin his response to Curtain with, "Jane, you ignorant slut."
If you are perplexed why a columnist does not respond to your e-mail, it could be because you began with "Byron, you piece of garbage."
I can't imagine why someone would send this type of e-mail; only a masochist would bother to read such a diatribe.
Could it be the uncertainty of the position held is called into question, and insulting the columnist is the only way to immaturely camouflage those feelings?
The worst malefactors of this practice are those who post online under a pseudonym. Hiding behind an alias, they are free to unleash a barrage of cowardly attacks.
Seldom do these critiques bear any merit; maybe the purpose is to offer the aspiring anonymous blogger a platform. Behind the boldness of anonymity and the power of the keyboard, these mild-mannered Clark Kents are transformed into super critics committed to using insults to fight the never-ending battle against all things that do not correspond to their truth.
When did obtuse repartee become standard form when communicating to a political columnist? What's wrong with civil communication? Has it become passé?
I respond to all lucid correspondence, regardless of the position taken. Those who see the world differently, ironically, are the best qualified to hone my liberal positions.
The columnists with whom you disagree are not Satan incarnate anymore than those you agree are the bearers of messianic tidings.
If dehumanizing the columnist represents the only way you can effectively convey your point, there's a Dale Carnegie course with your name on it.
Disagreements are always welcome, but original thinking is preferred. But know that invectives have never been proven to be an effective method for persuasion.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com
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