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Who are these people?

Jack Balshaw 1/9/02

Reading the letters to the editor is a part of my daily review of what's going on. These letters offer a broad view into what all types of people are thinking. It would be easy to dismiss those I don't agree with as cranks and those who have the facts wrong as know-nothings, but these are real people with real concern about something. I wouldn't want to be considered a crank just because someone reading this column disagrees with me. Or be considered a know-nothing because I don't have all the facts.

The letter writers are people reacting to something from their own personal perspective and with only the knowledge their day-to-day experiences place before them. Their life experiences, good and bad, provide them with an individual perspective. And their place in the work world and society determine what knowledge they have ready access to, to base their opinions on.

In those areas where I'm not in agreement with them, I have to remember that not everyone thinks the same, not everyone has the same perspectives. If we did, there would be only one political party, one religion, and hardly any need for leadership as everyone would already be in agreement as to what should be done and how it should be done. Would that be Utopia or Hell?

But, having said that, it would be informative to know more about the letter writers. Do people who deplored the energy crisis in California use more or less energy than the average person? Are they energy hogs or conservers? Do the pro and anti abortion rights people have an equal and consistent concern about the death penalty, or about war? I wonder sometimes if those wanting us to conserve, practice what they preach. Do they drive SUV's or live in oversize homes?

The fact that we can be inconsistent in our positions doesn't seem to often occur to people. Or perhaps anything we agree with is automatically right and anything we disagree with is wrong. So we question some things and accept others without seeing any inconsistencies or flaws. I think the biggest flaw in most of our perceptions, however, is related to the size of any opinion base we might individually represent.

The small percentage of the population who are vegetarians, who commute by bicycle, who purchase only organic products, who advocate home schooling or who promote school vouchers often presume the ideal world would mimic their choices if only given the chance. Similarly, the pro and anti advocates for gun control, growth control, tax reform, etc. each truly believe they're right. And a case can rationally be made for each of their positions.

The question however is, " How much of the population do they represent?" What we often see is that a small but focused group of zealous people can impose their beliefs on a large but disinterested majority. This is most easily seen in the political process. Extremists from either end of the political spectrum create and present severely opposing solutions to a problem they believe exists.

The vast majority of moderates sit in the middle without participating and observe the contest like it's a tennis match (look to the left, look to the right, etc.). Eventually they're often left with only the option of voting to approve or reject one of the extreme positions.

Similarly, readers of the letters to the editor view only the positions of those with extreme beliefs. The moderates don't care enough to write and so present no "middle of the road" position.

How can we get moderates to express themselves when, by definition, moderates don't have strong positions? How can we get the political elite, who so often assume the "silent majority" agrees with them, to extend themselves to truly consider that "silent majority" before they make their decisions?


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