Our opinion: Respect, listening better than fear

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At last weeks' forum on school safety, gun violence and solutions held at Brattleboro Union High School, we had the privilege of welcoming a pair of area students — Molly Durling of BUHS and Gary Gay III of Leland and Gray High School in Townshend — to talk about those issues.

We learned quite a bit from their input, as well as from attendees who asked smart, respectful questions, and from panelists who gave honest, thoughtful answers.

But perhaps the most illuminating details shared during the evening came from those two students, particularly as they talked about how the student bodies of local high schools have been grappling with gun issues, in the hallways and on social media.

We heard that just like the adults, the kids at our schools are not unanimous when it comes to the need for greater gun regulation and whether it will help make schools safer. But we also heard that at least so far, they respect each others' rights and opinions. Durling, for example, praised BUHS classmates who held a protest in support of second amendment rights at BUHS a week ago. (Those students held another such gathering Friday morning.) And Gay, a sportsman who has looked forward to legally purchasing his own gun, spoke candidly about how his views on gun sale age restrictions have evolved.

So far, it seems that local students are doing a better job than the adults of respecting and accepting each others' differences of opinion. Perhaps at their young age, they've yet to become infected by the "my party right or wrong" tribalism that has ground the democratic process in Washington to a useless and maddening stalemate. Maybe it's because they share something in common: Anxiety that the next school shooting might happen at their school. They've grown up with lockdown drills and upsetting images from school shootings on television. That can't be easy.

That brings us to the respect shown by the audience and the panel to Durling and Gay during Friday's forum, which we greatly appreciated — and, in bold relief, the disrespect that some have shown the student activists from Parkland, Florida in the past few weeks.

To be certain, it's hardly a surprise that self-appointed Internet heroes and talk show pundits would take gratuitous swipes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students such as Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. It's regrettable that the price of taking on a public leadership role now includes absorbing such cheap shots from every direction. If they didn't know that before, the Parkland kids sure know it now.

But the shocking depths of depravity to which some have been willing to sink to attempt to discredit high school students who survived a mass shooting are troubling indeed.

Social media has made it too easy to be flippant and casual about being downright inhuman to each other, as BUHS principal Steve Perrin pointed out last Friday. But that's only a part of the motivation for smearing the Parkland kids.

So let's call out the true source of these attacks: Fear.

Gonzalez, for example, must terrify the likes of Alex Jones and U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, middle-aged white guys for whom the emergence of a strong, smart, fiercely independent young Latina poses an existential threat.

These kids have done something more remarkable than organize a few rallies, make a few speeches and show the grown-ups how one uses social media to promote change. They have been willing to stand up and speak truth to power. They have refused to be silenced by the usual suspects, no matter how bad the vitrol gets. No wonder people in power are reacting so strongly — they know these kids are serious, motivated and have tremendous support.

But here's another thing about fear: Not only does it prompt us to do the wrong thing, it also scares us out of doing the right thing.

As Americans we've been convinced by people in power, through attack ads, sound bites and dog whistle messaging, that we need in contempt of and afraid of each other. And here's what that has given us: The 99 percent squabbling among ourselves while the 1 percent are laughing all the way to the bank.

We know the right thing — the thing they've made us afraid of — is to once again find the common ground that unites us, and embrace our diversity, not to split us apart, but to promote a more just, fair and prosperous society that provides opportunity to all.

Can we ignore the fearmongers and do what's right?

It starts by treating each other with the kind of respect that our panel, our audience and our student speakers showed each other last Friday.

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