Everybody’s got an opinion, how ’bout you?

Published 1:35 am Sunday, May 11, 2008

Opinions are like noses, everybody’s got one. If you’re like me and appreciate war movies, you’ve probably heard a couple of versions of that phrase that aren’t fit for discussion on Mother’s Day.

But it’s true. Just about everyone has an opinion on most issues.

And one opinion is never more “correct” than another.

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They’re just opinions and having the ability to freely express them is one of the reasons our country is so great.

But sometimes, especially when the opinions differ greatly from our own, that’s difficult to remember.

Since we launched our new Web site just under a year ago, the subject of opinions has sparked much debate.

In particular our new Web site allows registered users to post their comments onto news and sports stories and other people’s opinion columns, too.

A number of readers have complained that the comments on stories are offensive. That may be the case, but that’s how opinions are. Some are offensive to others. That’s the nature of the beast.

An interesting thing happens when someone says something we think is offensive. Our immediate reaction is to get angry and fight. The second reaction is to get back the perpetrator by either spouting off ill words back or by seeking some form of legal retribution.

Probably a dozen times in the first six months of our new Web site, I either fielded complaint calls, e-mails, letters or face-to-face visits.

In almost each instance the person complaining sought to silence the other person by seeking to have us remove the comments or take down the comments feature entirely.

While we have a good system in place for offering readers ways to report abuses of our online terms of use policy, probably 90 percent of the comments that are flagged by users for removal are not, in fact, violations.

The logic seems to be: disagree with a comment and work hard to make it go away.

Imagine what would happen if everyone who was offended by a comment took the time to write a response?

Imagine how much communication would be going on in our community about issues that readers truly care about?

Interestingly, I heard a man speak to a group of newspaper folks on Friday who understands this; he jumped into the electronic comment fray and lived to tell about it.

He’s a man who got upset over comments that were ill informed and divisive. So he took matters into his own hands and responded.

The most interesting thing is that he’s an elected official.

His name is James Moore, Ward 4 alderman in the City of Petal, a city of approximately 10,000 residents just east of Hattiesburg.

Moore explained that he decided to jump into the fray because he felt part of his constituency just didn’t understand what was going on in city government.

Moore is unique. He’s a middle-aged guy, who runs a bicycle shop and happens to understand an important thing.

Online communities exist. They’re huge and they’re growing each day. And, more important, even the people who “flame” off responses quickly are humans. They’re taxpayers, moms, dads and voters.

And each one of their opinions matters as much as the next.

When leaders begin understanding that and start realizing that open government is truly a way of empowering the electorate to help them make decisions, that’s when government will truly get to a higher level.

And everyone with a nose (or other body parts) can have an equal say in the direction we’re collectively headed.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.