Many people are asking, 'Can’t we all just get along?'

While most agree public discourse has taken an uncivil turn, a workable solution is less clear

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 10/16/20

“Can’t we all just get along?”

It was a question raised during a Bristol Town Council candidates forum last week, and it’s an issue that seems to resonate with everyone who …

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Many people are asking, 'Can’t we all just get along?'

While most agree public discourse has taken an uncivil turn, a workable solution is less clear

Posted

“Can’t we all just get along?”

It was a question raised during a Bristol Town Council candidates forum last week, and it’s an issue that seems to resonate with everyone who takes part in political conversations, regardless of what side of the McGovern-Nixon line they stand.

Civil discourse has become anything but civil.

“People need to listen to each other,” said Councilor Mary Parella. “I’m not sure why it’s disintegrated, but it is fundamentally damaging.”

Everyone present at the forum last week agreed that the problem is not present in the face-to-face Council meetings. “The members of the Council respect each other,” said council Chairman Nathan Calouro. “People need to understand, though, we can discuss issues without picking a side.” Candidate Bethany Sousa Foster agreed. “I have been very disappointed,” she said of the public discourse. “That is not why I ran. The focus should be on the issues.”

Social media to blame?

“Social media, the paper, and flyers are being used to misrepresent the issues, instead of getting involved in serious debate,” said incumbent Rep. Susan Donovan (D-69), who, as a statewide public official, routinely finds herself attacked in public forums. “I used to be a community advocate,” said Rep. Donovan, whose volunteerism over the years has included the LNG in Mt. Hope Bay issue, public schools, Save Bristol Harbor, Linden Place, and the Bristol Art Museum. “I was shocked when I ran for office — I had never been subject to such vilification before.”

“Social media exacerbates the problem, providing anonymity to folks who want to criticize others,” said Mike Byrnes, candidate for town council. “People have no tolerance for views that are different from theirs, and it has filtered down into Bristol.

“Ultimately, it tears at the roots of the community. We have all sorts of social, familial, and friendship connections that are fraying.”

It’s not just people in the public eye

While an argument can be made that politicians open themselves up to public comment (though it would still be nice if people kept their gloves on), it steps over a line when private citizens are involved. Nancy Hood, a Bristol resident and longtime activist with East Bay Citizens For Peace, recently received a voicemail on her work number that was, as best, discouraging.

“It was a very bizarre message,” said Ms. Hood. “The caller went on about me being a Democrat and against hardworking people. He said in his message that he wasn’t harassing me, which was, in fact what he was doing.”

“He didn’t threaten me, he just made it clear that he thought I should be offended by being called names like ‘democrat.’ But what was offensive was that he would take the time to call me, at work, taking the conversation out of the public forum and anonymously try to insult me. He could have left his name, and told me he disagreed and wanted to have a rational conversation, but that’s not what this was about.

“He crossed a line.”

The very real concern is that such attacks could make people uncomfortable about speaking their mind, which may well be the unspoken goal, on both sides.

Councilor Tim Sweeney lays some of the blame on the existential anxiety closet that has been 2020. “We are all bummed out,” he said. “People are scared and nervous, and they are reacting in fear. It trickles down to the local level.”

Solutions?

It’s not easy puzzling out a solution to an issue that is national in scope and has reached a fever pitch in forums where disaffected keyboard warriors can hide behind the anonymity of their screen names. “We need to talk about things in a thoughtful way, and agree to talk about complex issues civilly,” said Rep. Donovan. “As a small community, we have to stop this.”

Ms. Hood advocates responding civilly to critics, so as to de-escalate the situation. “Don’t engage in the  same manner,” she said. She also noted that there are groups across the country working and producing educational material and workshops aimed at helping citizens work with others across the political divide.

“This is an important issue, and something that affects all of us,” she said.

At the local level, candidates are hopeful this is a phase that won’t last. “Politics are about what’s possible in the middle, through compromise and agreement,” said Mr. Byrnes.

Said Town Council candidate Adam Ramos, “Bristolians are good people who want connection.”

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