Editorial 

Opinions, dialogue and fostering relationships

By Bob Barnett

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about how "polarized" the world has become. Much of that talk stems from the recent U.S. election, which through the electoral college system produced what many people now refer to as red states and blue states. But the division is apparent at many levels.

In a Nov. 1 interview with NBC News Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was asked why, if things were so wrong in Iraq and in America, the election was still so close. His answer: "Because it’s polarized. And because the Bush campaign has mostly run a very negative campaign to push the hot buttons of polarization."

After the election the Washington Post weighed in with a Nov. 14 editorial headlined: A polarized nation?

"This year’s political campaigns generated much regretful commentary about our polarized society, and those red-and-blue maps of the results reinforced the sense of a divided nation," the paper stated. It went on to say that polarization was both milder and more serious than presumed; that ordinary Americans are probably less polarized than in the past, but "several powerful forces are pushing them further apart." Radio and television talk shows, Internet sites, single-issue activism and political spending are some of the divisive forces the Post identified. "Although citizens are not deeply divided, the minority that dominates the political arena is genuinely polarized," the paper declared.

Perhaps taking a cue from earlier, simpler times, politicians, corporate leaders, activists and others seem to have increasingly decided issues are black and white; you are either with us or against us. The U.S. election and the Iraq war are only the most obvious examples, but everything from offshore oil drilling to privatization of government services to climate change to the opening of Flute Basin seems to be quickly boiled down to yes and no sides these days.

This isn’t necessarily polarization. Differences of opinion are as inherent to human beings (and newspapers) as DNA. But at the end of the day there are often hard decisions that have to be made on complex issues; decisions that often come down to a yes or a no. It’s the process we follow to get to those decisions that can leave concerned people feeling polarized or accepting of a decision.

Last week we had a letter to the editor from a North Carolina resident who said he no longer felt welcome in Whistler. This week we have several letters in response. They all demonstrate empathy for the original letter writer, but there are also differences of opinion.

In a town based on tourism, it is a huge concern when someone says they no longer feel welcome. It would also be an enormous concern if differences of opinion were no longer welcome. A forum for such public discussions is also inherently part of a newspaper.

At a time when polarization seems common on so many fronts, the tolerance of contrary views on many issues in the Sea to Sky corridor has been impressive. From the proposed logging above Pemberton to independent power projects to the opening of Flute Basin, the debates locally have been open, healthy and for the most part respectful. Consensus has not necessarily been achieved but we are stronger for having gone through the process.

To be sure, there have been some bizarre opinions expressed locally from time to time – some of the comments on employee housing projects come to mind – but for the most part Whistler people are pretty tolerant and open to engaging in an exchange of ideas. It’s this dialogue, at a community level, about our policies, attitudes, faults, specific projects and even visitors, that is encouraging. The dialogue at national levels is frequently less encouraging.

Nine years ago, during a visit to Whistler, Myles Rademan, then the director of public affairs for Park City, Utah, discussed the importance of civic dialogue, calling it "the basis of democracy."

"To me the essence of community is one where the relationships are as important as the issues. We have to trust each other," he said. "My own experience is that places that work on their relationships are more successful. Local government’s role is to bring people together, to foster relationships."

Relationships always need fostering, as issues need debate. At Pique Newsmagazine we endevour to play a role in both.

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