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Divisiveness and Misreading

Some anonymous poster on the Tiverton 1st–related Facebook page, Tiverton Fact or Fiction, was intrigued to discover that I had written about appointing the next-highest vote getter to Budget Committee vacancies the last time the subject came up.  The content of the Facebook post was incorrect, but on the whole, the post had a positive effect.

Firstly, it allowed for a long conversation in the comments between myself and Brian Medeiros that actually brought us to the place that civil debates in a community ought to go.  Although Medeiros kicked us off in a divisive direction by declaring that I “have zero credibility with anyone in Tiverton (or beyond) whose read the tortured logic, selective & twisted data, and flat-out errors in [my] writing,” some dozens of comments at last got to the point at which we each understood where we differed on the fundamental issue.  When two people can do that, they can usually cordially agree to disagree.

Unfortunately, Medeiros has since returned to attack mode, casually dismissing most of my response to Mike Burk as “changing the subject,” which makes it very easy not to address what somebody is actually saying.*  At least we had a moment of real discussion.

Secondly, the anonymous Facebook poster’s error about my old article is an excellent illustration of the reason public debates get so heated, as well as the attitude that makes community harmony so unlikely while Tiverton 1st is a force in town.

The articles that I wrote for Tiverton-Little Compton Patch in its early days were for-pay contract essays, and I took it as my role to be as informative as I could.  All writing is a balance of priorities, and for those articles I wanted to emphasize the provision of information over the expression of opinions.  I still expressed my opinions, but I tried to do so in a way that offered more objective information in the process, so readers could understand context.

In this case, the article was actually about the charter’s limitation of officials to just one public position each.  That was why there was a delay in appointing Laura Epke, who was the next-highest vote getter not to be elected to the Budget Committee in 2010.  When Rob Coulter left his Budget Committee seat to join the Town Council, Epke was a member of the Municipal Building Feasibility Advisory Committee, and the charter limits people to one town position at a time.

In the course of explaining the situation, I spent one paragraph pointing out a possible political implication of the issue.  Basically, it was so obvious that Epke would have to pick one position that I wondered whether there was some political reason it wasn’t brought up at the outset, or before the meeting at which the Town Council was to appoint her. I speculated, therefore, that it was possible that somebody involved wanted to get the council to commit to appointing the next-highest vote getter.

Had Epke chosen the Municipal Building Committee over the Budget Committee, the next person on the list would have been Louise Durfee, who was much more polarizing, at that time.  I also mentioned that Jeff Belli (from the opposing faction) might also be interested in the position, and though he had run for Town Council, if he wanted to make an argument for himself, he could have pointed out that he’d actually received more votes in his race than Durfee had in hers.

As a simple matter of grammar, I did not take a position on the next-highest vote getter question.  Indeed, I moved along in the next paragraph, saying, “Whoever finally takes the empty chair when budget season arrives,” new awareness of the one-position-per-person rule might affect other elected officials.  And then I listed some other residents who might have to choose one position over another.

The important point, for my purposes here, is that the confidence with which the Fact or Fiction folks took my statement as evidence of hypocrisy shows the frame of mind with which they read what their opposition has written.  They wanted to find dirt on me, so they read the old article hoping and assuming that I was against the next-highest vote getter standard when it didn’t benefit my side of the political fight.

As both Burk and Medeiros have done me the favor of proving, if you start out reading an essay just knowing that the writer says what you want him to say, the odds are pretty good that you’ll discover that he said it… even when he didn’t.


* Since this post went live, Fact or Fiction has deleted both the comment from Medeiros to which I’m referring, above, and my response providing a link to the letter that Medeiros didn’t provide.  It’s telling that Tiverton 1st wants to make it more difficult for people to get both sides of the story.  Here’s a screenshot of the deleted comment from Medeiros.  (My reply simply linked to the Sakonnet Times letter that he mentions as well as the corresponding post on this site, for those who don’t subscribe to the Times.)



Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. (401) 835-7156.

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