The recent citizen initiative in Shaftsbury is a commendable effort to stem the tide of growing hostility in public meetings and processes. It was also a reminder of what has kept me from most area public meetings except if covering them for news.
A decade ago, I attended a Select Board in Bennington at the invitation of several neighbors. The issue was a potential development of woods abutting residential homes on one side, and the hospital on the other.
While the details of the project escape me, what I recall was how quickly the evening turned heated. Siding with the neighborhood, I didn’t feel sorry for the hospital’s two representatives, who, in retrospect, politely tried to answer all questions, and laid out their position in a professional manner.
The board shelved the project, and nothing more ever came of it. Afterward, my triumphalism was palpable: I cheered and pumped my fist: "This is what democracy looks like," I thought, long before it became a cliché.
But 10 years later and hopefully a sliver wiser, I’m disappointed that as a group we didn’t keep our cool. Given all the recent attention afforded to Shaftsbury’s issues, I’d even go so far as feeling embarrassed when looking back at some of the crowd behavior that night.
This wasn’t an earth-shattering coast-to-coast forum with partisan tempers raging. Yet one can appreciate today’s social rancor by seeing how easily a few dozen folks in rural New England turned into a rabble.
Everyone present knew each other, and ironically, even some from outside the ‘hood chimed in, pointing threatening fingers at certain board members as well as the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center team.
The fight was not theirs, but they incited nonetheless; it seemed to scratch everyone’s itch for a rumble. Some enjoy that arena, or have a need to be heard publicly in intimidating ways, or have never learned to communicate otherwise.
But so much of this recent discussion on civility misses the point, perhaps because our perceptions of small-town mannerisms are off the mark.
I once mentioned this phenomenon in a column, and dubbed it "the myth of small-town civility." I have no scientific data to support it, just a lifetime of observations from living all over the States, in every major region, and in locales ranging from metropolitan to pastoral.
To start, people as individuals are pretty much the same everywhere. They are guided by similar emotions and thoughts, which are developed over time and expressed in different ways.
So we hear of demographic trends in popular culture: West Coast folks are laid back; life moves at a slower place down South; New Yorkers are in a hurry, etc. Whatever stereotyping such profiles conjure, they exist because to some degree, there is truth in each group dynamic.
But not every place is for every person. And one rule seems to apply everywhere: Just as the dog owner who walks right by the "Pets must be on a leash," sign and unhooks the pooch to run free, so also do the few ruin it for the many.
Nowhere is this more evident than in small towns -- the smaller, the more powerful the undercurrent caused by people who can’t disengage passion from bad manners.
And since there is scant anonymity in small towns, this behavior, normally absorbed into the background noise of cities, spreads like a virus. It leaves deep scars in villages graced with the statistical misfortune of having more than their fair share of such moments.
Even honest or well-meaning mistakes die hard. A slip of the tongue here, a foolhardy indiscretion there, and the wall of silence that can meet someone in that spot is thicker than a Fort Knox barricade. Even a benign attempt to describe the problem, such as this column, will draw contempt from some quarters.
This leaves most benevolent citizens intimidated, quiet, or worse still, indifferent. Others aren’t willing to take risks or express themselves freely. Resentments build and they don’t fade. People take sides and won’t budge. Ostracism becomes common. Apologies are either withheld, or when rendered, ignored.
To their credit, some people on both sides of the divide in Shaftsbury are trying to bridge it. We should all pull for them, and all those who strive to treat others well, even in disagreement. Most of us don’t want to keep cutting civic tension with a knife -- or feel as if we’re pulling it out from between our ribs.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: email@example.com