by Kristin Leutz
In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” two neighbors meet in the Spring to repair damage done to a stone wall forming a fence between their properties. While one questions the need for a barrier in that particular location, the other brushes the suggestion of change away, referring to his father’s old adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” As a life-long New Englander, I have often told friends from other parts of the country that we may be a little irascible in our debates, but in the end, we are devoted to our communities. We may not be the type to always pop over to borrow a cup of sugar, but we still go deep when we connect. Like the two men in Frost’s verse, we find ways to meet up and reaffirm our boundaries from time to time.
In Amherst, this used to happen at Town Meeting. My husband and many good friends served their time at Town Meeting. They all saw the appeal of pitching in and having discourse in this uniquely quaint form of democracy. But rather than encountering a folksy connection, they found something else. They came home with tales about witnessing rudeness at the meetings, or about bitter debates, with grudges formed and held by bullies. I thought to myself back then, “Gee, really? How can the stakes be so high in a small town like this? We all know we’ll bump into each other at the grocery store. Can’t we just get along?”
Now, we have a new form of government, but things have gotten worse. The ideological camps in town cemented when the school vote failed. It seemed as if a door to civil discourse had closed with a heavy thud and many are still labeled according to their chosen side in that bitter contest. Various friends over the years were flattened by stress as they took public roles, either by writing, serving in office, or taking jobs with the town. They remained quiet about it when they were torn apart on Facebook or in blogs by people engaging in cyberbullying. But their burnout was real, and we may never know who decided not to run or to write because they did not want to risk feeling exposed to such negativity. We have squandered some of our best human resources.
It doesn’t even matter what position you take. Almost anyone who takes a position on something in Amherst will be subject to some level of “call out” culture. After I penned a recent opinion piece in the Bulletin, I saw an immediate personal effect. I received disturbing direct messages online and heard through the grapevine about which folks I’ve known for years now were “so mad” at my article. The messages happened to all be sent by men, which felt threatening as a woman just beginning to find her voice in public discourse. On the other hand, I felt emboldened to keep writing as I also got a big handful of emails from others whom I haven’t spoken to in a long time, thanking me for expressing what they often feel – that our town’s political culture has grown toxic. I called a few other women working in public spheres in town to ask if they had similar experiences of feeling targeted. Sadly, each at some point had to ignore anonymous phone calls, troubling emails, and other personal attacks.
Come on, Amherst, can’t we do any better? I am turning to myself first to ask what it will take to hold judgment, to engage authentically, and invest some time into putting myself out there to call folks in, not call them out, so I might hear differing views. I will need companions in this effort. I hope you will join me.
We will need first to ensure that we can find real facts to formulate our opinions and to center our discussions. As an organizational psychologist, I am well aware of the many forms of cognitive bias that keep us apart from each other in civil life. We tend to find facts that align with what we already think we know. We simplify and center other people’s comments based on our own egos and sense of moral righteousness. We all do this, regardless of what side of the fence we’re on.
Good neighbors may benefit from tall fences between houses, but we have to take a moment now to cast away the stones that have driven us apart in our civic life, rather than tossing them at a neighbor. We are all human, subject to our psychological limits, living in a small town that faces real and modern challenges. The only things that will enable more civility are acknowledging our shared humanity, moving beyond the idea that our self-proclaimed rational arguments will solve anything, and committing to shared responsibility to understand and deeply listen to each other.
We also need to lavish some energy and attention to curb the slow, but steady erosion of local journalism outlets. Our local papers, like most small media businesses, have faced consolidation, downsizing, and other challenges that have left the facts just out of reach. As we know all too well from our recent painful federal political turmoil, finding and discerning facts without trusted journalistic sources is tough and fraught with destructive potential for a media diet that only serves to deepen the sense of the “otherness” of our neighbors.
Where do we go from here? Build in time for self-reflection and mindfulness – we happen to have a local expert or two on that subject in Shalini Bahl-Milne. Reach out to write and share with your local blogs. Subscribe to local media. Attend more meetings and listen before judging. Consider your social media habits and tilt towards hosting more real discussions, not to posting. And, now that the weather is good, call a neighbor to meet over the fence, not just to rebuild it for the oncoming winter, but to truly value what they bring to your life here in Amherst.