The first day of the 2017 Legislative Session saw one of the largest protests to ever materialize in the Capitol Building. Estimates are that 6,000 people filled the marble halls of the Rotunda.
Our business in the Chamber concluded early into the protest so I decided to walk around to get a feel for the event. I took many photos and decided to write a playful and lighthearted report about what I saw. On Tuesday morning around 8:30am I posted that report on this blog. The gist of my post was two fold. First, I felt that the protest message hurt itself by invoking vulgarity (which I am on the record denouncing when it came from our President). Second, the protest had so many different messages that trying to focus a conversation on the issues proved unwieldy.
Peaceful protest is an American tradition. Its purpose is to air grievances and to promote discussion. Often times counter-protests are part of that process. Regardless, gathering together in peaceful assembly has always been to make a point. So, as a lawmaker attempting to receive that point, and also help initiate a discussion, I offered my own candid perspective on what I saw. No malice nor ill-will was intended. You can read the original blog post (which my wife proofread and approved before it was published) for yourself below:
The response I received was swift, organized, and acidic. By 4pm on Tuesday, my cell phone (which I use for work, personal, and legislative purposes) was rendered unusable by the volume of calls coming in. The messages left on my voicemail were caustic. I checked the traffic on the blog site and it became apparent the post was going viral. The reaction was certainly not what I expected and the harsh feelings were definitely not what I was trying to provoke. In deference to the ugly feelings being created, and in the expediency of regaining use of my cell phone, I deleted the post.
Whether that deletion was a wise decision or not is up for debate. In hind sight, I imagine that the post could have received national attention. In fact, I started getting angry calls from other states on Wednesday. But, the deletion also created an air of 'secrecy' which just made it that much more interesting to people. So, I received the double monikers of 'despicable' and 'coward'. The deletion even earned me the title of Friday's Boner of the Day on X96's Radio from Hell Show. I beat out a boner candidate who stole medical equipment from a girl with cerebral palsy, and a candidate who, as a coach, lied to kids about having cancer when instead he was going to jail for embezzlement. So, it appears that a blog post deletion amounts to serious moral turpitude.
From the larger perspective, this whole episode highlights the deep and poignant divisions that exist in our society. What would be perceived as playful banter being written by a Democrat, equals hostile aggression from a Republican. Our self-segregating echo chambers are naturally hostile to new or different worldviews. Our desire to be heard is limited by our desire to be validated. It takes a lot of practice and patience to engage in civil discourse when the differences and the effort required to overcome them is large. But, for the sake of our Republic, the effort is worth it.
I have a conservative world view. At Monday's event, I could have stayed comfortably within the secure hallways and corridors of the Capitol and found a quiet place to ignore the protest. But, instead I spent about an hour wandering around and observing. The people were friendly and I didn't feel threatened at all. People were smiling. I was the only guy in a suit which made me stick out like a sore thumb. That visual irony wasn't lost on me which is why I joked about being "undercover" and took a couple selfies. Nevertheless, I made an effort to discover what was being said, even if there wasn't an instantaneous acceptance of the message.
When discussing this communication problem with my Democratic colleagues (who also thought the original blog post was fairly benign) they chuckled a little at the negative feedback I was getting because it was the response they expected. A female Democratic colleague told me: "Just walk away. You can't touch this. This is toxic for you as Republicans." She appears to be right.
Yet, the irony here is that Republicans control government everywhere you look in Utah. If you want your message to lead to action, it has to be heard. To be heard the message has to be conveyed, received, then understood. From what I can see among my colleagues, the message of Monday's event isn't being received well nor is it understood at all. Sadly, the vitriolic response my colleagues have watched me receive has dampened any of the little enthusiasm they had to engage. The risk-reward ratio just doesn't payoff for them. Nobody wants to be needlessly demonized for disagreeing.
Civility in disagreement is paramount in importance. A friend in House Minority Leadership and I chatted about the need for this no less than three times this week. Both of us are of the opinion that everyone needs to pull themselves out of their comfort zones to have a healthy dialogue. I also spoke with Marina Lowe of the ACLU and offered to help present civic engagement classes to inform citizen activists on the best ways to interface with lawmakers.
I am a lighthearted guy. So, it is disheartening to see that my attempted humor was misinterpreted as outright contempt. Clearly, the rift in worldviews is wide. I look forward to the day that rift can heal and we can all laugh together again. After all, laughter is the best medicine.