Let’s have a lower-case dialogue in our all-caps culture

Connect with the Statesman and engagement editor Bill Manny

The Idaho Statesman has a new effort to reach out and get out in the community, which will be headed up veteran Statesman editor and former Boise City Club President Bill Manny.
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The Idaho Statesman has a new effort to reach out and get out in the community, which will be headed up veteran Statesman editor and former Boise City Club President Bill Manny.

Will Hay turned the Caps Lock on when he responded to my Sunday column about lowering the decibel level in our public conversation.

“HOW WILL PEOPLE GET THE POINT IF MY CAP LOCKS ARE OFF?” he asked me on Facebook. To my point about simplistic memes, he sent me a scowling Willy Wonka and asked: “ARE YOU SUGGESTING I THINK FOR MYSELF AND THEN EXPRESS MYSELF THOUGHTFULLY?”

Will’s response was blunt but effective, one of dozens and dozens of people I heard from after I wrote about hosting conversations that involve less shouting and more listening. I got good contacts and ideas for people and organizations I should talk to or get to know. And I got thought-provoking reactions from people like Will who like the notion, even if they’re skeptical about how we go about it.

That’s fair. Introducing myself as an editor for community engagement and opinions, I expected more eye-rolling and more skepticism. Most of you who called, emailed, tweeted, Instagrammed, Facebooked or stopped me on the street said “good luck” and “amen.”

Even the skeptics were civil. Stan wrote to say he’d heard the same before, but has come to expect having his conservative perspective misunderstood, if not dismissed.

“I’m afraid that as a journalist, and most likely a left-leaner as well, that while you claim to want to bring about ‘community conversation,’ you’re afraid to step out of your comfort zone,” he wrote me. “So please, introduce individual ‘smart people’ from the right, too.”

He added: “This is a predominantly red state. The staff at the Statesman seems to disregard that, for lack of a better word.” He cited a Syracuse University study that he said shows conservatives give more of their time, money and even blood than does the left. “But we are presented as being heartless and without compassion. That rankles. Perhaps, shedding a positive light that might be a subject of ‘community conversation.’”

I get it. I know how it feels when my colleagues get stereotyped as “libtards” or “corporate media” or “enemies” or purveyors of “fake news.” When you reduce someone to a label, you stop treating them as a person.

When I stopped for coffee Monday morning, the owner thanked me for my sentiments, and agreed that we all need to get out of our individual echo chambers. “We just sit around complaining,” she lamented.

Jeff Souza welcomed me to the job Sunday by pointing out the Facebook comments on the Statesman story about Gov. Otter’s back surgeries. “Getting people who actually write those things in a public forum off the page is another way to have better conversations,” wrote Jeff, a councilman in Garden City.

I agree with Jeff that the comments were juvenile and mean. Is the Statesman hypocritical for counseling lowered voices in one place then giving people a virtual megaphone to be noisy and hateful elsewhere in its comments?

Gulp. That’s a tough question. We want to provide a forum and respect people’s right to express themselves (with very modest restrictions). But the comment section can be a brutal place that turns me and a lot of people off.

In my book, those comments are counterproductive. You don’t change my mind by shocking and mocking. And calling Otter “worthless” or uncaring isn’t accurate.

He got the Idaho health exchange through a reluctant House of Representatives, which took a lot of political capital and made it hard for him to do more. He gave Dick Armstrong, his Health and Welfare director, the charge to push the Legislature as far as he could for moderate steps to address the gap folks, as many as 78,000 working people who make too little to get help buying health insurance. They failed. Could Otter have done more? I think so. I think he still can.

Some commenters did make smarter points about how lucky Otter and lawmakers are simply to have access to good health insurance and good health care.

Rather than mock him, I’d ask the governor to put himself in the shoes of a working parent who can’t afford to get prompt care for a bad back. The state and society suffers if that person waits until that back injury is so bad they end up in the ER, getting expensive care for more severe injuries that the hospital or the county or the state ends up paying for. When that person can’t work, they can’t support the kids, they can’t pay that debt, and the spiral continues. We all want to believe that family or church or a person’s own grit will somehow lift them out of pain and poverty and set things right. But not all stories end that way.

I’ve asked the governor some of these questions myself, and I don’t always like his answers. But when you have that conversation, you can’t doubt that he loves the state and wants to do right by it. We disagree on what that looks like. But you don’t have a conversation if you start with jokes about facelifts or tight jeans. 

It comes down to what you want to accomplish. Do you want your friends to high-five in agreement, or do you want the other side to say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way” ?

Everybody has to answer for themselves. My answer to Will Hay’s question is this: People are way more likely to read and listen when you turn the Caps Lock off.

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I wrote before about how we’re asking readers to share our stories and videos and columns and editorials to your Facebook pages, because that’s where we reach and persuade people today. Please also follow me on Instagram and Twitter for the same reason. Ask your friends to do the same. I can’t make a difference if people aren’t reading and sharing and talking about what I do.

My invitation still stands: Let me know what you think. Send me your ideas for stories and columns. Tell me about people I need to meet, people who break barriers and solving problems in new ways. Invite me to come talk to and hear from your organization or book club or coffee klatch.

Bill Manny: 208-377-6406; email: bmanny@idahostatesman.com; Twitter/Instagram: @whmanny