COLUMN: ‘Us vs. them’ mentality hurts progress, political climate

Divisiveness dominates almost every political debate. After writing my last column, I expected a mixed bag of feedback. Usually, I can expect a few responses agreeing with me and a few more than that disagreeing. Interestingly, though, this time around there wasn’t any opposition or support.

All of the responses I received — via email, social media and in person took issue with people.

“It’s ‘their’ fault we don’t have viable economic development,” one person rattled off, putting extra emphasis on the word “their.”

The next night, I was going through emails and found one from a reader who said places such as Ovid, Seneca Falls, and other rural communities are on the cusp of exploding upward — if it weren’t for the “few who oppose everything new.”

Then, before the week ended, a handful of emails made it to my inbox — from Seneca Falls residents, asserting that due to “landfill opposers” economic development is being stifled in the town and in Seneca County as a whole.

Here’s a truth: People don’t stifle economic development nearly as much as bad ideas, bad policies and outdated practices.

Everyone has their own vision for economic development. Very rarely will a development opportunity present itself that doesn’t strike someone negatively.

Does it mean there isn’t room for that person or group in the community? No. Does it mean that those opposing groups cannot get together for the common good and future growth? Absolutely not.

Look at communities that are finding success in challenging economic times. They are communities advocating for real change, looking at ways to upgrade policies — and not just replace them — but most importantly, they don’t allow bickering to be confused with real, informed opposition.

Last time around, I used the most divisive issue I have covered in the last two years. The Hamilton Square affordable housing project in Trumansburg has created a wild stir, primarily because many of the folks who oppose it do so for reasons not based in fact.

Moreover, when it comes to debating divisive subjects like affordable housing, landfilling or law enforcement — all of which are taking place locally — the fallback argument always features an “Us vs. Them” theme. When the data runs out, the individual on the other side of the issue cannot be converted or the person arguing runs out of energy to keep fighting, the argument breaks down into “See, it’s a ‘them’ problem.”

These issues all have roots in socioeconomics. That said, development can’t be hindered by socioeconomic entrenchment, any more than it should be hindered by fear of change or bad and outdated practices.

Leaders need to sift through the noise and act on hard data and facts. They need to be the ones who perpetuate a “work together” attitude and push away the “Us vs. Them” mentality that drives small communities apart and pushes them further into the rear-view mirror of the modern world.

We’re all the same.

People should understand that economically, there is very little separating the “haves” and the “have nots.” We don’t live in a metro area, where true blue collar vs. white collar has hold. The numbers simply don’t support it, since the average income of those living in any rural county, excluding the top 1 percent, is barely north of $33,000.

People are people, and the focus needs to remain squarely on the issues and where common ground exists on those issues to create meaningful change. It can’t only be about who makes how much money or what street a person calls home.

It has to be about ensuring that economic development can take hold through a united community. One that recognizes the potential in our own backyards.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times on Oct. 24, 2017.

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