“Words are the most powerful thing in the universe. … Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind.”
— Charles Capps, American preacher
A column I wrote about assisted suicide on Aug. 25 prompted a letter to the editor calling the piece “a dangerous negation of the truth,” which in turn sparked a heated debate that was still being waged on The Telegram’s website as I write this.
The letter-writer suggested that legalized euthanasia could lead to a tyrannical state where “invalids, bedridden cripples and the unproductive aged” could be “phased out.”
That’s not my feeling on the subject, but hey — to each his own.
As of Thursday morning, the letter had attracted 31 comments — more than the original column did — and there could well be more by now.
The discussion is, for the most part, well thought out and lively, which is just the kind of exchange that, as a columnist, you hope your work has at least partly inspired. One commenter, Ed Power, referred to “democracy vs. theocracy,” which is basically what the conversation has been about.
Certain people with fervent religious beliefs don’t want to live in a society where assisted death is legal — for various reasons — while those of a more secular persuasion want to at least have the option.
I’ve been enjoying reading the comments, and there’s some great persuasive writing there, but as is the case with so many things, someone had to come along and spoil it by getting personal and resorting to name-calling.
The commenter — I won’t name him, since who it is doesn’t matter as much as what he said — referred to me as a “hussy” and a “hate writer.”
The “hussy” I find laughable, since it’s such a throwback term, like being called a dame. (Although it certainly implies a moral judgment made by someone with insufficient knowledge to back his claim.)
The “hate writer” bit is objectionable.
I have written about many things in the past decade or so, and I have certainly expressed some strong opinions. But with the exception of the column I wrote aimed at the man who raped and tortured a little girl before murdering her with the help of an accomplice, hate has never been on my agenda. Even in that case, it was more repugnance than hate.
Hate is a strong word and an ugly one. It has been used to stir countries to bloody battles and to defend acts of genocide and terrorism. It is not a word that should be thrown about lightly, particularly from someone who calls themselves a Christian.
My husband gently chides me when I use the word casually — as in “I hate it when the CD skips,” or some such.
“Isn’t hate too strong a word?” he asks. And in every instance, my answer has been “yes.”
We are all guilty of sometimes saying things — or pressing the send button — before we think things through. Perhaps the commenter doesn’t really think I spew hate, but that I expressed a view that does not mesh with his own. There are ways of expressing that without resorting to grave insult.
And a recent court ruling out of Ontario has given website commenters even more reason to pause before reaching for the vitriol.
According to the latest edition of The Press and the Courts, a regular publication of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, a testy exchange in 2011 on a blog called Free Dominion and other websites has led to a defamation trial and crippling legal costs for the defendants.
The Press and the Courts notes: “What triggered the case was an acrimonious dispute — taking place on three websites over several days — about federal politics and the legality of Canadian Omar Khadr’s U.S. Military trial.”
One blogger called another blogger — both using pseudonyms — a Taliban supporter. Next thing you know, a lawsuit ensues.
A judge dismissed the case, “ruling the comment was not defamatory in the context of a blog that regularly features opinion even at the level of insults and invective.”
But the Court of Appeal in Ontario has overturned that decision, because a panel of judges concurred that the lower court’s decision was premature in the absence of a trial and an examination of the evidence.
One of the judges, Justice Robert Blair, noted that “questions about what constitutes defamation in the caustic world of blogging have not been addressed by Canadian courts ‘in any significant way.’”
The outcome of that trial could send a chill through the Canadian blogosphere and also other websites where comments are posted, including The Telegram’s. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.
All in all, it’s a salient reminder to us all to choose our words carefully.
Sticks and stones can break your bones, and name-calling can actually hurt you.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at