Teri Orr: What has happened, in this country and this neighborhood, to well-reasoned debate?
I am embarrassed, ashamed or — apparently the worst thing I could ever say to my children when they were young … I am so disappointed — not in someone else right now — just in myself.
This week I chose to not attend a public meeting important to me and this community. For all my long years in Park City — 40 if you’re counting — I have been covering public meetings — Health Department, sewer board, all the school boards and County Council and city meetings. Nonprofit meetings — as a board member and/or a staff member and sometimes just as a reporter. Meetings that begat more meetings. Visioning sessions in living rooms and hotel ballrooms and conference spaces. Planning meetings — so many planning meetings. Convenings of legislators and Rotarians. New age healers and specialty doctors. Mothers against/for … any number of worthy causes.
I mean, there just isn’t a style of public meeting I think I have missed in all these many years. It was my duty for such long time — as a journalist and then a citizen journalist — to show up with a clean notebook/functioning writing implement in hand. Hard candies wrapped in noisy cellophane, to get through the long stretches missing meals or because I might start coughing … or fall asleep. A puffy coat that could serve as a blanket in a too-cold room where I might be stuck until after an hour I should have been in bed.
I could say I was under the weather because I had the tiniest case of the sniffles, tiny so tiny, but that would have never stopped me before. And for all my years, I have never walked away from a tough night … one where I knew there would be two strong opinionated sides. I mean, I’m Irish — we were bred to argue … but lately I am/have become weary of the noise. The rancor, the fierceness of not the well-reasoned debate but the unilateral, bellicose, ill-informed, huff-puffery that is mean. Mean in a way nobody’s mama ever thought was all right.
Good manners, informed by any kind of faith-based belief, and love of a democratic, well-reasoned position are the stuff of both a functioning democracy and a good neighborhood. With the complete understanding … sometimes to get along — you need to go along.
But now, in the new world order of just arguing over someone else’s idea with rhetoric that is not meant to advance discourse but to simply shut it down, there is no listening for response or even hearing a point well made, taken. I used to be comfortable saying … I don’t know, what do you think? Without feeling like a complete assault on my belief system and carefully crafted values would instantly be up for attack. A conversation meant there would be two sides, maybe more, taking turns expressing views and looking for areas of common ground. Say — ketchup, no ketchup — on a hot dog.
Your expert opinion — based on less than a paragraph of unsourced content you read online — should not be the sole basis of your red-faced argument over the inhumane treatment of tomatoes sacrificed in the making of ketchup. Which suddenly becomes “the making of ketchup is responsible for the death of all coral reefs and unchecked forest fires.” And your expert opinion — obtained by a few seconds of internet reading — does not qualify you as an expert witness in the court of ketchup. Or coral reefs. And let’s not even get started on the merits of the actual production/creation of the hot dog you may or may not think the ketchup should be morally attached/detached to/from.
And it’s not like we can look to national leaders to set an example of honest, well-informed, well-formed debate. The taunts and the non-specific insults and the reframing of facts make reasonable people question their own knowledge, hard-earned, about very real things that happened to them. Gaslighting — a term that was the basis for a play, then a movie and now is touchstone shorthand for lying to a person and denying the very real experiences that happened to them — results in trying to confuse reality with misdirection and confusion and delusion until the confusion and doubting and disbelief become the unhealthy norm of the victim.
The national presence I really miss, former President Obama, was recently quoted at the Obama Foundation speaking to young people but — like any truth — speaking to us all.
“This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke, and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” Obama said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
And the culture of faceless arguing online and pretending that is civil discourse — holds no truck with Obama.
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb … then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Because man, you see how woke I was,” Obama said. “You know, that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.”
And so, like an outdoor marker in a National Park I found myself the other night in our beautiful town but an unfamiliar place — the spot where I no longer wanted to participate in community engagement. There was a giant red X in my field of vision (formerly field of dreams). And instead of my normal reorienting and heading off on the trail again, I retreated. I chose to stay home and not participate.
Later that night I had a moment when I was curious what might be happening at the public meeting and a tinge of the fear of missing out, but I also felt safe. I woke up in the morning — in no way “woke” — but I realized this time, this week, the bullies won. And I’m gonna have to wrestle with that this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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