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tone, rhetoric, and message in this time of corona

 I posted this on the Arlington email list and Facebook
 on Sunday, May 3

Dear Arlingtonians,

It’s been more than 7 weeks since our collective trial has begun. It can feel like a new normal, and it can feel like each day is harder than the one before. For most of us I think it’s a mix of both.

This email is a commentary on how the collective trial is manifesting itself in our community dialog. It’s also a call for personal reflection, and if you feel it is appropriate, some follow-up actions.

Let’s start with some quotes from messages I’ve been sent or cc’d as Selectman. Some of these were to me (as an elected official) and some of these were sent to town employees (non-political).

  • One email compared the Select Board to the Politburo.
  • Another said that because of insufficient publicity the election process “will be a sham.”
  • Another email suggested that town officials were engaged in campaigns to exclude residents in the same vein as campaigns to exclude women and people of color.
  • Another says the town is “requiring full hooding” of public meeting participants even as the use of Zoom meetings evolves every week.

The rhetoric in these emails is asymmetric with the problems that are being addressed. They’re over-the-top attacks that aren’t justified by the underlying issues.

Worse, these messages accuse the recipients of some really terrible things – disenfranchisement of voters, bigotry, misogyny, racism, and malice.

The recipients are working hard to keep our town safe and productive, while they’re simultaneously defending themselves from these accusations. These messages are demoralizing and distracting. These messages are about real issues, issues that are worth addressing. But the message style is making everything worse, not better.

Let me bring in a thread from my professional life at Hydrow. We’ve been seeing a huge increase in inbound volume since mid-March, and it’s been very positive. But a couple weeks ago the VP of support messaged me: “Customers are also getting increasingly unreasonable/unstable/abusive in the past week… especially around delivery failures,” she told me. Most of our customers are great, but a handful of them are suddenly being terrible when they weren’t before.

I’m connecting two dots. The people writing these messages (Arlington residents and Hydrow customers both) are under intense personal stress. If you take someone’s psyche and you wring it out like a dishrag with stress, fear, and unknowns, it’s going to squirt out somewhere. Their psychic pain is squirting out in these venomous, unproductive messages.

Thanks for reading this far. Here’s where you can help. It all boils down to this: Be the change you want to see.

  • If you you’re writing a message about something that needs improvement, please keep it positive.
  • If you see someone who isn’t keeping their cool in their messaging, figure out how to de-escalate it, or maybe just step away. I can tell you this email wasn’t my first reaction when i read some of those emails, but this email will hopefully more effective than my first knee-jerk thoughts.
  • Be another positive voice. If you see someone who isn’t keeping their cool, create a whole new message – one that appreciates the work and the progress that we have been able to achieve.
  • If you see something you think could be better – think about volunteering! The town is powered by hundreds (thousands) of volunteers, and we can always use more.

As a short-timer on the Select Board I have the benefit of 9+ years of experience, plus the luxury of some perspective. My skin grows thicker, and I can tell you that helps quite a bit.

Thank you all for reading and considering.

Dan Dunn