On being misunderstood

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I truly look forward to receiving letters and emails from readers. I value your comments and suggestions, and am eager to hear what you think.

That’s really how the Beacon has grown and changed over the years: by trying to address the needs and interests of readers and incorporate their recommendations.

I always like to tell how, within hours of our very first issue hitting the streets back in 1989, we got a telephone message from an angry reader saying, “Your crossword puzzle clues are TOO SMALL!”

Of course, I much prefer to read letters that praise the Beacon or hear from readers who agree with something I’ve written.

But I have to admit that the most valuable letters I get are those that take me to task for an opinion I’ve expressed. Not only do I get to learn how others may disagree, sometimes violently, with my views. Sometimes I get to see how well (or poorly) I’ve expressed my own thoughts.

For example, I learned from a recent letter that I apparently gave the completely wrong impression in a recent column about Social Security. The reader took me to task for an argument he thought I had made, then proceeded to set me straight by giving a beautiful presentation of the very point I had tried to express myself! 

Honestly, I think my failure to communicate in that instance derived from the fact that I had written two columns on the subject of Social Security: one in June and one in July. The reader apparently only saw the latter one, which led him to misinterpret where I was coming from.

But this is itself instructive. Complex public policy issues like what, if anything, to change about Social Security or Medicare cannot be boiled down into sound bites or even 500-word columns.

The background and history are relevant. The present issues and potential future problems must be explored. Possible solutions need to be described and their ramifications considered.

It takes time and space to develop and explain a serious, well-thought-out position — more time (and space) than most people (and publications or websites) are willing or able to devote to writing and/or reading.

As a result, most written arguments — and probably all spoken ones — are inherently incomplete and, on some level, misleading.

I think that’s why it comes so naturally to many of us to criticize others for their opinions and jump to conclusions about their motives.

We don’t really know whether people have thought their opinions through or explored the subject matter deeply. We only know what we take in from a brief encounter. So we may be judging them too harshly, or without understanding their true positions.

On the other hand, sometimes people do parrot positions they’ve heard elsewhere or that fall within their “comfort zone” politically speaking, without devoting much of their own energy to thinking about them.

And ironically, it’s probably most difficult to argue with people who haven’t really thought about the positions they hold. If they’ve adopted an opinion thoughtlessly, then they aren’t likely to let reason sway them to another point of view, are they?

Anyway, I urge you not to jump to conclusions about what we should be doing about Social Security and Medicare until you have explored the issues in some depth.

They are both vitally important programs, extremely costly ones, and ones that all of us have paid into for most of our lives.

They certainly shouldn’t be jettisoned or gutted. But they also need to be tweaked or adjusted to reflect how Americans’ work lives, healthcare system, life expectancy and demographics have changed over the years and will be changing in years to come.

I believe there are any number of modest, reasonable revisions that could be made to keep the programs sound for the future. Each one affects one or more constituencies: workers, employers, beneficiaries, doctors.

There will no doubt be some pain involved in making these changes, but I believe we can, as a society, find a way to spread that pain fairly.