By Rob Robertson
The recent campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 election was indeed acrimonious.
Some candidates and supporters behaved quite badly. Some library renovation and expansion opponents engaged in widespread misrepresentations, and some are apparently continuing to pursue anti-democratic efforts to get their way. An outgoing Town Councilor repeatedly criticized some of her colleagues who were running for reelection, and called for their defeat. And the unpleasant, even vitriolic, tone of public discourse continued in a recent email in which a re-elected Town Councilor misrepresented the processes of town government, and more.
The ongoing nastiness certainly takes up a lot of space and energy. It’s both the manifestation and the cause of a lot of suffering, but is it representative of our town?
Voter turnout on Nov. 2 was 31.15 percent, as 5,042 of 16,187 registered voters cast ballots. While canvassing for a “yes” vote on the library renovation and expansion project, a HOT issue in the Amherst Bulletin and on various listservs and web pages, I spoke with folks who were completely unaware of the situation.
It seems that apathy, rather than acrimony, is actually more representative of our community. Can we find a way to address both, and restore our community together?
The problem is (at least) two-headed: 1) How can we create an attractive civic life in which people will want to participate, and 2) how might we offer opportunities for people to engage in good faith with those with whom they disagree?
Among the politically engaged, the polarization that has so injured us nationally exists right here in Amherst. We’re not using the same labels here, but the features of our civic disease are the same:
- We have become two factions, each angry at the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity or good intentions; and
- We view our political opponents as uninformed, misguided, stupid or bad people whose ways of thinking are both incomprehensible and dangerous.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” If that’s a remedy for this disease, could we do it in Amherst? Is there a way, as individuals, that we could try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it? At a community level, is there a way to engage with those with whom we disagree in an effort to find common ground and ways to work together? Can we find ways to identify and support principles that unite us rather than divide us?
Does our formal civic process attract and engage most Amherst voters, or residents? I deeply appreciate volunteers’ and Town employees’ efforts, and at the same time I wonder whether we are doing enough as a community. Is what we’re doing now working? I’ve heard “doing the same thing and expecting different results” is one definition of insanity. How’s that working out for us? Should we try something different?
I suspect the unpleasantness and acrimony that so stimulate some of us is precisely the thing that drives others of us away from civic engagement. But what if Amherst offered “Common Ground Conversations,” a public dialogue process emphasizing listening to our neighbors and understanding their values, hopes and fears?
Imagine a series of structured public conversations that offer people an opportunity to speak respectfully, and to be heard respectfully. Imagine a process that would encourage people to listen without becoming defensive, and to speak without attacking. We could agree to allow others to hold their own views, no matter what they are – and we could sincerely try to understand their views, and the values underlying those views. We could abandon all hope of persuading others that we are right, knowing that others won’t try to persuade us that they are right.
By no means am I suggesting that we must suppress our views and values, or mute our passion. However, for this process to be effective, we must together agree to speak respectfully to each other, and to refrain from attacking each other. That, in itself, would be a change for the better!
If we agree to do this hard work together, what might we expect?
Maybe we’ll come to understand our neighbors better through thoughtfully listening as they express their nuanced views. As our understanding increases, our stereotyped thinking about those with whom we disagree may decrease, and we might find that we develop greater trust in our neighbors’ good intentions and their basic humanity. Common ground might emerge. We might start working together, rather than working against each other. Folks who have been uninterested or alienated might be attracted to participating in developing our community. And those who continue to speak disrespectfully of others will find they gradually have less impact on our public discourse.
On the one hand, it’s probably best to do the work without having any expectations as to its outcome. On the other hand, I can’t help but hope for a decrease in rancor and vitriol, and a gradual, steady improvement in the quality and tone of our conversations. And, just as important, perhaps we’ll also see an increase in civic interest and participation.
Shall we try something new? Or will we continue to do the same thing, expecting different results? Are you ready for a change? I know I am.