Peter Demling: The poisoning of the public square

  • Peter Demling on Friday resigned Friday from the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees, becoming the third member to resign last week. Staff file photo

  • People rally to support Amherst Regional Public Schools LGBTQ youth at Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst on Friday, July 28. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/28/2023 6:55:39 PM
Modified: 8/28/2023 6:55:03 PM

I have resigned from the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional School committees because I can no longer endure the constant stream of bullying and personal attacks from those who disagree with me.

The cumulative and sustained stress has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on myself and my family. It got worse during COVID and the fight over teaching in person, then reached its apex this year with the Regional Middle School reports and the superintendent change.

Bullying and harassment of public figures (both elected and not) is the biggest problem with Amherst civic life. I’ve lost count of the number of times neighbors have told me “I don’t know how you endure it.” “Better you, not me,” and “No way in hell would I ever put myself through that.” People feel intimidated to serve, feeling they lack the thick skin and political shrewdness to handle it.

This is now the dominant paradigm in Amherst discourse because it has proved to be an effective strategy for influencing elections and public officials’ decisions. People can only withstand so much abuse before they give in to pressure or leave their positions. We’ve watched this happen for a while with town employees, and now we’re seeing it with School Committee members.

Conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t acknowledge this because it only encourages the behavior and “lets the bullies win.” So public figures are supposed to stay balanced and measured, pretend we’re not bothered by it and calmly go about our jobs, trusting that most people see it for what it is, sadly shake their heads and quietly hope for better.

But this doesn’t work, because the feeling of isolation is where personal attacks inflict the most damage. So we need to speak up. I will tell you that even when I know accusations are baseless, public personal attacks still hurt. They leave a mark; marks that sometimes don’t go completely away. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but it’s the truth and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

This is also not a “both-sidesism” case of “everyone is doing it.” The primary groups in Amherst that support bullying and personal attacks as political strategy are: the school union leadership; the Progressive Coalition of Amherst PAC; and the Amherst Indy blog. Not every group member participates in or endorses such actions. But these groups sow seeds that enable their most fervent supporters.

Groups state opinions loudly and repeatedly through multiple channels to create a false perception of broad community support. Those who disagree using facts and reason are accused of lacking progressive values. These personal attacks are openly celebrated as courageous resistance to the “silencing” of those who speak on behalf of marginalized voices, playing on our sincere desire for social justice.

Dissenting views are framed as threats. “You don’t care about teachers’ lives if you want your kids to learn in person.” “You don’t care about paras or income inequality if you refuse our contract demands.” “Requiring masks is punishing teachers.” “You don’t care about LGBTQ students if you support the superintendent.” “You’re racist if you disagree about how to combat racism.”

Us vs. them. Good vs. evil. With us or against us.

This dehumanizing of others justifies personal attacks because it absolves people from considering that the targets of their attacks all have values, feelings and inner lives just as valid and real as their own.

The drive to promote opinions as unquestioned truth creates a need to back-fill with justification, giving rise to disinformation. The largest (but not only) platform for spreading disinformation in Amherst is the Indy blog. It welcomes personal attacks and celebrates conspiracy theories. It is a vehicle for personal opinion and political agenda woven into “objective” reporting. It is packaged for consumption to trigger and amplify resentment, hostility and mistrust.

Of course not all content from these groups is misinformation, and not all members support such actions or even sincerely believe the claims their groups promote. But personal attacks go largely unquestioned and unchallenged publicly in Amherst, so the end result is still personally damaging and politically effective.

I worry that the departure of a well-respected superintendent coupled with an unchecked atmosphere of bullying will make it even harder to attract and retain staff and families. But I feel I’ve done all I can do, and this is not something that can be solved individually. The future direction of our schools and town is a collective choice.

Will we endorse personal attacks as “democracy in action,” part of a necessary and righteous holy war that must be waged in the name of progress? Or will we push back, and publicly support those who do, by saying, “we also share these progressive values – but this behavior is not acceptable.”

I know the majority of residents do not condone these actions. But that knowledge is not enough to prevent the damage. The silent majority has to be less silent if we don’t want this dominating our government and discourse. So outreach to all with open hearts and minds, of course; but combined also with specific attention to elections and periodic public support of representatives.

Our individual opinions are not always based on correct information, even in the sincere and necessary pursuit of noble and just causes. Disagreeing without dehumanizing each other is essential for achieving sustainable and meaningful progress of our shared social values.

I think Amherst has a lot of work to do to get there. I sincerely hope that we do.

Peter Demling served on the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional School committees since 2017. His full resignation statement is at facebook.com/DemlingForSC.


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