The ping pong ball and the mouse traps

Last week I finished my first column with two questions: Does it seem to you that many of us are increasingly quick to assume that our opponents are operating from bad faith &

that they're not just wrong, but driven by unspoken, malicious agendas? And if anyone's ever assumed that about you, how do you react? The Tidings was good enough to provide a case study in last Monday's lead story: "City Could Spend $160,000 on Ski Area Suit." You know this one, right? It seems that the city is ready to use our tax dollars to fight the suit that the Mt. Ashland Association (MAA) is ready to mount with our donation and lift-ticket dollars. Both are poised to spend six figures of our money. To steal Dave Barry's stock line: I am not making this up.

Litigation is what you do when you can't resolve a vital issue any other way. Does Mt. A's future qualify? Vital, yes. Irresolvable? Plenty of environmental conflicts at least as complex as this one have been peacefully settled by people of good faith and persistence. It's not persistence that's been in short supply. The seemingly endless Mt. A battle is a textbook demonstration of what happens to people of good faith when they're accused of bad faith.

I've sat in to facilitate a few quiet meetings among expansion proponents and opponents over the years. There have been brief openings, moments when participants relaxed their grips on stagnant positions and listened to one another with an ear for finding middle-ground solutions. Those openings slam shut when someone suggests, either in a snide comment behind closed doors or straight-out in the newspaper, that folks on the other side are snakes.

Members of the MAA Board have heard and read that they're a money-grubbing bunch who only want to bring in more skiers to fatten profits for their local businesses. If you're an MAA Board member, studying mind-numbing information packets to get ready for endless meetings that assign you more work out in the community &

all on your own time and dime &

what is this accusation likely to do for your frame of mind when you're called on to compromise?

Leading expansion opponents have been called knee-jerk obstructionists, flat-earth fearmongers and worse. If you've spent years fighting development of wild areas from a deep-down conviction that the planet badly needs a break from chainsaws, bulldozers and manufactured chemicals, how do those charges affect your willingness to open to compromise and concession?

These aren't hard questions to answer. Think of a time when you held a strong belief in some kind of conflict, and someone &

a spouse or partner, a work associate, a public figure on the other side &

said you don't mean what you say, that your real motives are pettier or greedier or somehow smaller than you're admitting, How does that work for you? So how puzzling is it when Ashland's &

and America's &

public conversation sounds like a squabble among severely disturbed ten-year-olds?

The toxicity of trashing someone else's motives is so concentrated that it takes very few comments to poison the civic waters. As I write I'm remembering an early episode of Walt Disney's television show explaining nuclear reactions (these were the days when we were duck-and-covering beneath our first-grade desks to prepare for the missiles that Moscow was planning to hurl our way). Walt himself stood behind a table crowded tightly with mouse traps and ping pong balls, rigged so that any mousetrap that was touched would launch a ball. He smiled, asked us if we were ready, and tossed a single ping pong ball towards the middle of the table. What followed was a tiny holocaust of snapping traps and flying balls so spectacular I'm seeing it clearly fifty years later. It still accounts for about 90 percent of my education in nuclear physics.

We are a table full of tightly-sprung traps. One snarky abusive comment can be the first ping pong ball.

Before I steer the discussion towards solutions (which makes it sound as if I have some), let me check out how all this lines up with your experience. What I think I know about human relations I know from looking inside. What opens me to listen, to hear for the first time things that may have been said to me before, what leads me towards cooperation, is respect for my intentions. What completely shuts me down, makes me rigid and, oh, shall we say &

obnoxious? &

is any charge that I don't mean what I say, that I'm hiding a darker agenda behind noble-sounding jive.

I think I share this trait with almost everyone else. Am I right?

is the author of Forest Blood, As If We Were Grownups () and the forthcoming novel Unafraid. Reach him at

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