Columnist Richard S. Bogartz: Demonizing the other side always counterproductive


Published: 09-25-2023 4:39 PM

Well, what do you know. Again, Amherst appears to be divided into warring camps. On one side, the good guys, struggling in the name of the righteous and the good. On the other side, the other good guys, struggling in the name of the good and the righteous.

It reminds me of what for me was the most memorable scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s movie “Alexander Nevsky.” The Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire have invaded Russia and are threatening Novgorod. Prince Alexander has summoned the commoners of Novgorod to fight the Knights.

It is the evening before the decisive battle. Eisenstein shows each side praying to God for heavenly support in the struggle to come. I was young. I was struck by how readily opposing peoples will be sure that God is on their side. And you-know-who must be on the other.

Later I learned another important lesson that bears on Amherst’s delightful feuds. When Person A is telling you about Person B, you always learn more about A than about B. Always.

I don’t know enough of the facts to take a side concerning what happened to LGBTQIA+ students at Amherst Regional Middle School. My higher self’s default position is that good people were trying their best to act in the common good and that other good people, also acting in the common good, were aggrieved by some actions of the first group. I confess to a cynical tinge that can entertain the possibility that someone was trying to preserve their job, or that someone else was trying to politicize a delicate situation, but I have no information supporting my tinges.

The above being said should suffice for both sides to conclude that I am working hand in hand with the above mentioned you-know-who at the end of the second paragraph.

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Without endorsing or disowning any of the positions Peter Demling has taken on the substantive issues or any of his accusations, I do want to support his firm stance against personal attacks. It is vital to the decency of our community that we have a deep understanding of our common humanity.

It is vital that we keep in mind that the other, and particularly the other that we disagree with, is a center of consciousness as are we, with hopes, dreams, and good intentions as we have, but also with different histories, different perceptions, different understandings, different attitudes and different values, and frightening as it may be, in some cases different beliefs about what are facts and what is the truth.

We all learned that the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. So too, the idea or position is not the person. It’s an error to attack the person because of an idea that they hold. Even a moment’s thought reveals that a person can change their mind about an idea. An idea is not an enduring characteristic of a person. It is a transient, although sometimes long lived.

An attack on the person is not only an error but is also strategically flawed. It fails because the person rises to defend themselves. Others, perhaps not subscribing to the idea, will rise to their defense.

Attacking the other person will also elicit doubt in others by suggesting, when the person is attacked instead of the idea, that there is reasonable cause to believe the attack on the idea is being avoided because of its weakness.

Attacking a person because of the ideas they hold is one kind of an error. Another is being so attached to your own idea that an attack on your idea is viewed as an attack on yourself.

There are people who wear their egos on their sleeves and view an attack on their football team, their preferred political party, even their favorite dessert as an attack on who they are. On their very being. This is a kind of grasping by the ego that the Buddha warned against.

The above notwithstanding, if, as Maxine Oland writes, it is true that middle school children “were barked at, called homophobic slurs, harassed in bathrooms, and were dismissed, misnamed, and misgendered by guidance counselors,” then it is appropriate to find out what ideas, in which people, gave rise to these actions.

This process of discovery should lead to change that respects the rights of all students to be free from such treatment while also respecting the humanity of those responsible for the damage.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.