COLUMN: When dissenting voices silence themselves

Some writers have said they didn’t want their names used because of their fear of repercussions.

There’s no shortage of letters to the editor in the pages of the Summerland Review these days.

Since the Banks Crescent development proposal was made public in November, letter writers have commented about the seniors housing concept. Most of the letters have come from people opposed to the proposal, or people who have serious concerns about it. Only a few have been in support.

Given the letters that have been sent in, it would be easy to assume nobody other than the developers wants to see the Banks Crescent proposal become a reality, but that would be a mistake. There are some in Summerland who support the concept.

Last week I received two letters, on the same day, from people who would like to see Banks Crescent approved.

The writers discussed the potential benefits for Summerland, and they presented responses to some of the arguments which have been made.

I couldn’t run either of these letters. They were unsigned. One had the writer’s initials but no name. The other writer asked to be referred to as “A Concerned Citizen.”

These are not the only anonymous letters I have received in support of this proposal. Some writers have said they didn’t want their names used because of their fear of repercussions.

Were these writers overreacting? Why should anyone fear reprisals for expressing an honest opinion?

The majority of those who have written letters about the Banks Crescent development have focussed on issues, not on personalities. However, despite the tone of their letters, some people with opposing views still fear possible repercussions and their fears are not entirely groundless. Some of our debates have become personal, especially when land use is involved.

I remember calls to boycott a business because of the owner’s view on a local matter. It happened just a few years ago. Another business person lost regular customers after expressing an opinion some did not support. At times, people who held certain views have had their motives or character called into question.

And I have watched as friends or neighbours stopped speaking to each other because they disagreed on an important issue.

When such risks exist, and when they have happened to others, it is easier to suffer in silence than to speak out.

This is unacceptable.

Someone who holds a differing view should be seen as an opponent, not an enemy.

All of us who live here, no matter where we stand on local issues, want what’s best for our community, even if we disagree on the direction to take.

Our letters pages are meant to be a forum where all are welcome to express their views even unpopular views. The purpose is to create a forum where ideas are thoughtfully presented and thoughtfully considered.

But I can’t run unsigned letters without setting a dangerous precedent.

If I allow anonymous letters from some, others will soon demand I run their anonymous comments in response.

Too often, commenters who are granted anonymity will take on a more extreme or more belligerent tone than they would take if they had to include their real names. And in short order, the respectful, intelligent dialogue is gone. For examples, look at any online news site which allows anonymous commenting on its stories. The comments quickly turn personal, often berating the person who made the original comment.

I wish the people who submitted the recent anonymous letters had signed their names. They had given a lot of thought to the matter and they had some ideas which are worthy of consideration. At the very least, the issues they raise deserve to be addressed and debated now, before the final decision has been made.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.