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Yes, it really is possible (and necessary) to disagree with someone without resorting to personal attacks

Hate mail is nothing new for me or anyone in my profession. I’ve been in journalism for 10 years, most of them spent covering Mississippi and the more controversial social issues we grapple within this state. I’ve been cursed, threatened, insulted and bullied more times than I can count.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between hate mail and response from readers who disagree. While some label journalists as people whose faults stem from the belief they’re always right, most of us spend the majority of our time and energy buried in research and interviews to determine the truth based not on what we think we know, but what the facts tell us. Sometimes we’re wrong. Really wrong. Journalists are ethically bound to uphold transparency in saying when we’re wrong because being trusted to admit fault is more important and more beneficial to the community than pretending we’re always right.

Hate mail — at least by my definition — is just what it sounds like: a vengefully misguided method of trying to hurt someone for what they say, think or believe rather than debating the substance of their arguments and the evidence used to back them up.

Some of my recent columns have yielded their fair share of stunningly angry, albeit amusing, responses. One reader told me to get out of Mississippi before anyone figures out how dumb I am; another advised me to “move back up north,” perhaps not knowing (or caring) that I’m a native Southerner. Another said if my parents and grandparents aren’t already ashamed of me, they should be. My usual reply to these messages, if I send one at all, is “thanks for reading.” But I usually abide my own rule of not taking the time to reply to anyone who doesn’t take the time to discuss the issue at hand because they care more about hurling personal attacks.

Social media platforms seem to have helped intensify this behavior, not only toward journalists but anyone who shares their opinions or beliefs, even mildly. I’ve watched full-blown Facebook fights develop over everything from restaurant reviews to movie screenings and even football team allegiance (OK, that one’s fair, but I digress).

It’s not to say we shouldn’t be passionate about our core beliefs when challenged, but it isn’t passion that hinders our ability to communicate with people. It’s how we use it. Insulting another person when we don’t like what they have to say doesn’t invalidate their opinion or further the conversation. It’s wasted time and energy that accomplishes nothing.

A few weeks ago, a reader sent an early-morning email that gave me pause at the end of a particularly hellish week of screening my inbox. She strongly, and I mean strongly, disagreed with a recent column, but did so by taking issue with my argument and questioning the evidence I used to support it. Not once did she insult my intelligence or tell me to leave the state I love or otherwise pepper her thoughts with ad hom attacks. My reply was just as passionate as hers in terms of defending my column and presenting further evidence to back up my argument, but in the end, I thanked her for discussing the piece at hand. It was the only email I had received all week that disagreed without weakening the conversation and gave more to think about regarding how we talk about race-related issues in our community and beyond.

Civility is not about being polite, at least not entirely. The world we live in and the issues we face are often too complex and emotionally charged to yield consistently polished and poised discourse. However, the ability to disagree with another person in a way that drives a constructive discussion requires putting in the work to do so without derailing it with personal attacks.

We can all do better. And we must.

Alex McDaniel is editor of the Oxford EAGLE.  Contact her at alex.mcdaniel@oxfordeagle.com