Column touched some raw nerves

Sometimes the things we write lead to misunderstanding and anger. This was the case with a column we published on March 31, titled “Demonic possession,” by Managing Editor Peter Crowley.

The column was not intended or expected to hurt, offend or anger anyone, but it did. It was meant to make a simple point: Hard drugs have become a serious problem in our community. Mr. Crowley conveyed that point by describing some of his personal experiences, such as finding a syringe on a snowy sidewalk and losing someone he knew to a drug-related death. It took readers on a journey through his thoughts as he tried to find answers.

Some readers told us he went too far on some points. Others said they found it an interesting observation, perhaps from a perspective they never considered.

The diversity and explosiveness of the criticism surprised us. Some expressed livid anger toward the writer. Some said he negatively stereotyped diabetics. Others said he stigmatized the mentally ill. Others said he was insensitive to a family’s loss and gave enough information for people to identify the deceased. Some said he was wrong to assume a discarded needle on the sidewalk came from a junkie rather than a diabetic. Some misinterpreted the column even further, thinking Mr. Crowley rejects science in favor of ancient superstition and actually believes demons are the cause of addiction and mental illness.

Clearly it touched some raw nerves, and some readers got sidetracked.

In hindsight, we admit the column should have been edited more tightly, leaving out the mentions of diabetics and mental illness that set some people off. Those were beside the point anyway.

But we cannot apologize for our editor’s viewpoint. He’s entitled to call things the way he sees them, just as anyone is. And the drug problem he described is unquestionably real.

The column’s references to recent overdoses hit some readers hard. The fatal one had previously been documented in the Enterprise in a March 21 news article titled “Heroin use on the rise: Investigator talks about drug trends.” Mr. Crowley didn’t intend to give readers any more information than had been in that article, and certainly not enough to identify the victim, for the sake of the family’s privacy, but some readers told us the column contained all they needed to figure out who it was. They said Mr. Crowley should have known better in a small town like this.

He deeply regrets this mistake. We all do.

Worse, it affected those closest to the casualty, making the hurt deeper during a time of mourning. Our sympathy goes to those family members. To them, we are truly sorry.

For those who misunderstood the comparison of demons and addiction, it was about the effect of the afflicted person’s behavior on observers. In each, something nasty has gotten a hold of the person; he or she doesn’t seem to be the same as the person the observer knows.

Of course, Mr. Crowley and all of us at the Enterprise understand the facts of addiction and don’t believe it’s the work of actual demons, but we, like people in general, still sometimes use figurative language to help us wrap our heads around what’s going on. We might say a junkie has a “monkey on his/her back” or speak figuratively of a person’s “personal demons.”

Another clarification seems appropriate: Unlike news articles, which are for unbiased coverage of events and issues, the Opinion page is, as per its name, for opinions. These include our own views, which can be expressed either in the form of a column, which shares an individual writer’s personal opinion or experience, or an editorial (like what you’re reading now), which collectively reflects the voice of the newspaper.

This can be confusing. For instance, an editorial, by its name, suggests it’s written by the editor, and although it often is, it isn’t always. (Full disclosure: This one was written by Publisher Catherine Moore and Mr. Crowley.) Also, the editor can write a column for a personal viewpoint that isn’t the voice of the paper. That’s what Mr. Crowley did on March 31.

Adding to the perplexity, we usually place columns by the editor or publisher in a spot on the Opinion page where editorials go, since we don’t see the need to run both an editorial and a column on the same day. Also, we usually post an editor or publisher’s column in our website’s “Editorials” category. We have been doing that for years, but we won’t anymore. From now on, any columns by staff will be posted under “Columns” in a category with that writer’s name. It makes it harder to find on the website, but it clears up confusion. We may also include these columns under “Guest Commentaries,” although then readers wouldn’t be able to comment on them.

In our mind, the purpose of all opinion pieces should be to stimulate thought and enlightening discussion on relevant issues. We hope this helps people learn from each other, find common ground and work toward solutions that benefit the common good.

The bottom line of all this is that we are close to the people in our community; it is full of our friends, family and neighbors. We celebrate their successes, console them when defeated and mourn their losses to sickness or death. Sometimes we inadvertently offend each other, and sometimes we see things differently. Those wounds sting all the more because they came from someone we know, but when we step back from them, we also know we all want what’s best for our community.

Therefore we encourage you to keep engaging in thoughtful conversation and trying to bring about positive change – on this topic and on others.