By Bob Houghtaling
The polarization we are experiencing on a local and national level is painful, troublesome and confusing for most of us. Despite having a wealth of information at our fingertips, we find ourselves, in many situations, diametrically opposed to opinions espoused by others. Why isn’t black, black? Why isn’t white, white? Why aren’t we able to come to consensus? Perhaps, sadly, facts do not matter. Perhaps, feelings, fears and the inability (or unwillingness) to consider options are greater considerations.
Remember, Galileo was locked away due to his temerity in substantiating findings first espoused by Copernicus. Remember, millions opposed Lincoln’s stance on slavery. Remember, Rosa Parks was arrested due to her stance on where African Americans should sit on a bus. History is replete with events and opinions that in retrospect seem “dumb.” How and why could anyone believe in witches? How and why could anyone believe that blacks were only 3/5 human? Looking back, it all appears so simple.
It seems that what we believe in impacts the information we choose to embrace. Religion, race, social status, education levels, peer groupings, family history and other factors all play roles in how we view the world.
From time to time most of us fall into the trap of thinking, “If I can’t understand it, then it can’t be understood.” This then sets in place a dynamic that asserts “Others who think differently than me are wrong.” In the most egregious form of this thinking an additional step follows – “Something is wrong with them for thinking that way.” It is hard to build consensus with this going on.
It has been an honor to have worked in the town of East Greenwich for decades. Over time I have met a number of talented and caring people – many who have become friends. Hopefully this continues a while longer for I truly love the town and its people. All of which makes writing this article difficult. All of which makes writing this article necessary.
The anger, polarization, marginalization and closed mindedness that has manifested, in many different ways, throughout the town is far worse than anything I have witnessed since 1983. Sure there have been arguments, significant disagreements, questionable tactics, etc., along the way, but nothing so entrenched like we are witnessing these days. Issues go from topical to personal almost immediately. To make matters worse, people run to the internet and pour kerosene on the fire. It’s counterproductive. It’s hurtful. Nothing gets accomplished except creating winners and losers. Unfortunately, even the victories are Pyrrhic in nature.
This article is not a call for ignoring major issues or placating things that cause pain. Just the opposite – advocating for the town’s people is essential. However, there are ways to do this. Finger pointing, disrespect, shaming, threats and subversion should not be on this list. We have courts, elections, the media and public forums to address our differences.
Some of you who read this know me. Whether or not we have always agreed, I am convinced that the vast majority of residents want what is best for the town. I am also convinced that all of this bickering makes you wonder about how we must be perceived by others. On top of this, what do the young people think about the daily diatribes they have become privy to? There is often a difference between being right and doing the right thing. Kindness, understanding and what is best for all need to be factored in. Steamrolling over others leaves many hurt. Along with everything else I have written about, it appears that poor communication and lack of transparency are at a premium. We simply do not trust each other.
Please consider how we are treating friends and neighbors. Please consider the many appropriate avenues available for recourse and change. Please consider that different points of view do not necessitate the creation of enemies. We have all been granted many gifts by living in East Greenwich (and working here). One of the ways of paying back should be treating each other with respect. Another should be showing tolerance for attitudes different from our own. Why have we spent more time creating foes then solving the town’s problems?
Perhaps facts do not matter. Perhaps feelings and beliefs are as important. If that is so, we certainly have established a “mine are better then yours” dynamic. How is that working out? Is it time to push the reset button?
Please, East Greenwich, let us each try to employ those things that make for community. Let us use our talents to better the town rather than to belittle each other. As was stated previously, I love this place. I am sure you do as well. Let us heal the wounds created through discord by listening to each other. That would be a start. There is much work to do, but fragmentation keeps us from accomplishing many important goals.
Quick fixes and scapegoating might provide for populist enthusiasm, but what ensues can hardly be called solutions. Neither are intimidation and threats. These are totally uncalled for. Thoughtful consideration, open dialogue, give and take discussion, creativity and a desire to promote the public good are necessary in times like these. It is so easy to paint rivals as evil and less than. It is so easy to dismiss challenging opinions as off base or ill informed. It is so easy to retreat to like-minded souls. Abraham Lincoln selected a “Team of Rivals” for his cabinet. Why can’t we, too, engage with those whose views differ?
It is disturbing knowing that people you admire and work with have gathered so much distrust. When hurt, many look for reasons to remain so. While this is not unusual, it is counterproductive. I know you. I know how much you care. There would not be so much anger if people did not care. Who that anger is focused on is a concern. What to do with that anger is as well. We need to raise our voices for a solution. This can only come when we can trust and respect each other. Watch out for those ideas that promote division. Embrace those that welcome inclusive interactions. Sadly, at present, we cannot even engage each other for viable dialogue. The “hunker to the bunker” attitude of misinformation, intrigue and a lack of transparency has to stop. Until then it is court hearings, tweets, damaged relationships and inertia. Why can’t we admit to mistakes, forgive some shortcomings and seek common ground? We can do so much more. A call for cooler heads is in order. Will we recognize such clarity when it appears?
Finally, I would like to invite you to St. Luke’s Church, Nov. 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., for A Noteworthy Evening. The intent of the evening is to bring people together and celebrate the town through some wonderful music.
On top of this, refreshments will be served. So, come listen to some talented singers and musicians from our schools and community. You might find that you all have so much more in common than one might think. If we can start simple, bigger things will follow. We are all responsible for the changes necessary to heal. In the end, perhaps getting involved with community matters will make a difference. It is the day-to-day cultivation of our community garden that will keep East Greenwich vibrant. Hope to see you soon.
Bob Houghtaling is the East Greenwich substance abuse counselor. He is also head of the Academy Foundation and is on the board of East Greenwich News.