Waialeale was tucked beneath fleecy layers of white, gray, charcoal and pink this morning, ending a long stretch of days where her face and summit were gloriously revealed. It had the effect of subduing everything when Koko and I went walking, and I paused in a vacant lot at the end of the road to enjoy the serenity, silence and view.
“Just think,” I said to my neighbor Andy, when he showed up with three dogs. “If they try to fence this off, or build here, we could protest, or sue them, because we’ve been walking here for a long time now.”
“That’s right,” he responded. “It’s not about private property. This is public land.”
We were spoofing on the Larsen’s Beach access issue, a topic that has intermittently found its way into our morning conversations in recent weeks.
It’s an issue that has caused me no small amount of irritation, primarily because it’s been accompanied by so much false information that is being dispensed, both deliberately and unwittingly, under the guise of “facts.”
It’s also showed me clearly how the common strategy of selectively using and/or distorting information to make one’s case — an approach that is integral to our much cherished rule of law — works to suppress truth and justice, while fostering conflict and polarization. And that’s why so many issues turn into bitter pitched battles that consume a lot of time, money and energy.
I see the Larsen’s Beach issue headed in the same direction, with Waioli officials chafing at the “sense of entitlement” behind such claims as “these trails are not private land” — an assertion made on a “fact sheet” stapled to a fence post in the beach parking lot — and fencing opponents chafing at an “evil landowner” and “religious zealot” engaged in a “witch hunt” aimed at keeping nudists, gays and hippies off the beach.
There’s likely some truth to all those points of view, but focusing on the “us against them” aspects of the issue is not going to get Waioli what it really wants — an agricultural land dedication to keep its property taxes low and relief from liability concerns — its lessee Bruce Laymon what he really wants — federal money for fences that won't be cut by disgruntled beach-goers — or beach-goers what they really want — the easiest possible access to the western end of the shore.
But it will allow everyone to wallow in the comfortably familiar feelings of indignation, self-righteousness, virtue, blame. An excellent article in Orion about the clash between humans and wildlife, which found its way to my inbox, as so often happens, just as I was seeking some clarity on the topic of polarization, expresses that dynamic well:
Each side is glaring, garish even, in its shriek of righteousness—and so it is with bears the way it is with everything else: we respond from a black-and-white paradigm, the potent dualities of us versus them resound with a faint, prehistoric echo. Instead of man against weather, or man against beast, though, it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, tree-huggers vs. wise-users, Buddhists vs. Bible thumpers. The appeal of such binary thinking is that we are able to name not only who we are, but also what we are not. We draw the dividing line like a firebreak, and it holds back the advancing enemy while we retreat to safer ground.
Is it possible to avoid such polarization? We see how conflict is an essential element in law and news, and it’s inherent in how we practice politics and religion. But is that truly the way things are and must be, or just how we’ve been taught to behave and believe?
When I first began discussing this with my neighbor Andy, he said it all comes down to the age-old battle between good and evil.
“And Waioli isn’t evil,” said Andy, who serves on its board.
“Not like the Superferry,” I said.
“Or Linda Lingle,” he countered.
We were just teasing. Kind of.
Still, good and evil do exist, and our deep recognition of that duality is perhaps why we reflexively choose sides, even when doing so isn’t accurate and works against our best interest, as in the Larsen’s beach access issue. Compromise is possible on this one, folks, and it’s only going to happen if people stop posturing and instead start focusing on their common interests.
But other times it is accurate, and in our best interest, to choose sides on the basis of good and evil, to reject compromise and embrace polarization. And that will be the next topic I explore in this series.