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Democracy and opinion

AS the 1988 political year approaches, it is a good time to consider how tolerant we will be of views differing from our own. Our reactions to others' positions reveal not only our own political and social values, but our attitude toward democracy itself. The citizen wants to know what's going on. Research shows a direct relationship between a person's reading of newspapers and his or her likelihood to vote. Those who take an interest in public affairs, who follow the news and think about public issues, also tend to show up at the voting booth. It's as simple as that.

Newspapers, like voters, differ. They differ in overall character - in ``where they're coming from,'' as the expression goes. Even within newspapers there can be considerable diversity.

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This internal diversity is encouraged.

News pages express diversity by reporting what various parties with standing - first-hand witnesses, public officials, experts - have to say about an event or subject.

The newspaper section of opinion columns, editorials, and letters constitutes a more direct public forum. Here, commentators, officials, professors, readers, as well as editorial writers, illustrators, and cartoonists, carry on a discussion of matters of public concern.

A first obligation of this ``citizens' forum'' is to ensure that a full responsible spectrum of views has access to the space. Of the 100 or so serious columns submitted each week to our opinion-column review board, only about a half dozen can be accepted. Those that appear most helpful in filling out a constructive discussion of issues are chosen. It's an open competition. The same with letters: Of the 150 or so submitted weekly, those that extend, balance, or correct the discussion have a better chance of publication. For fair billing, readers' letters appear on the same page as our editorials.

The emphasis, then, is on promoting democratic diversity rather than ideological or political conformity in these columns. This puzzles some readers, who might assume that everything we print should reflect one set of attitudes.

We take seriously our responsibility to take specific positions in editorials, as well as we can judge. Each editorial reflects the same process of research and consultation with officials and experts as does a major news story. We pray too to be alert to what most needs to be addressed in public thought about the issues of our times. Humor is welcome. We try to rise above mere personal opinionating.

The right of individual decision in a democracy, reflected in the secret ballot, cannot be separated from open discussion.

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If one conceivably could choose between a propagandistic, conformist system that otherwise promoted one's own public program, and an open system where the majority disagreed with one's own views, the greater progress for all would lie in choosing the open system.

As citizens, we should welcome differing responsible opinions. This isn't always easy. Forbearance in the face of opposing views may be the toughest test of citizenship. But we should avoid reactions of annoyance and cynicism, which sour civil discourse.

Direction and advance for a society, as for an individual, comes from improved thought. To cling too tightly to one's views may be to fall behind as society changes and progresses.

In a democracy, listening to what others have to say must stand with your right to say your piece.

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