Words and ideas from elected leaders really do matter

Friday morning as I prepared to leave for work I checked my Facebook newsfeed. I usually gaze for a few minutes at it and the Twitter feed to see what might have happened overnight. Could be news, sports, commentary or mainly just plain everyday human crap disguised as thought. Lately there is way too much of the latter.

But even in this warped age we live in I was surprised to see this among the first items.

Amyn Galey first post

So I’m reading this at a little after 7 a.m. and thinking, hmmmm, I know Amy Galey, the chair of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners and an elected leader in our community. We’ve spoken on the phone. We met once for coffee. Surely she didn’t intend for this to come off the way it sounds — a false equivalency used by broken down politicians or internet trolls when they don’t have a reasonable or well-thought out argument to make. How does a sentient person make the comparison of students memorializing the mass shooting deaths of other students and calling attention to campus violence to displaying a divisive symbol of a government that advocated the barbaric enslavement and torture of thousands upon thousands of people brought here against their will. A symbol of a Civil War that led to the deaths of thousands more Americans. A symbol that after the war was conscripted by racist people and organizations in an effort to maintain white supremacy over freed African-Americans. A symbol that to many if not most is one of hatred and intolerance? I‘ve written before about my own Southern heritage with an ancestor who fought in the Confederate Army.

Surely that’s not what Amy meant to say. After all, in a telephone conversation we had about school funding after I wrote a post calling for the county to up the ante on education spending, she told me that she didn’t want to be placed in the same category as her fellow and very conservative Republican commissioners Tim Sutton and Bill Lashley. Then, of course, she only voted to budget a portion of the school system’s request, setting off a firestorm of criticism from parents and educators who reminded her that her election campaign included a commitment to schools. My argument then and now was that at some point the county and its citizens have to make up for years of neglect in funding for schools — usually led by Lashley and Sutton. But that’s another debate for a different day.

Then not long after posting the message above on her personal Facebook page, she posted it on her Amy Galey for Alamance County Facebook page, too.

Amy galey

Huh, I thought again. She doubled down on it. “If she doesn’t want to be lumped in with Lashley and Sutton, she has a weird way of showing it,” I wrote to a friend.

Sunday when I checked my Facebook newsfeed — much later in the day because, well, sleeping in is a weekend hobby. I saw that Amy tried to clarify things a little. Times-News editor Rich Jackson also had a reference to Galey’s Friday post in his column this morning. Here’s what Amy posted today.

Amy Galey post

I am glad to see that Amy took responsibility and I applaud her attempt to mitigate the damages she caused. And all should understand I fully endorse her right and the right of anyone to speak on any issue. Free speech is a bedrock of America — a foundation that defines our nation and makes the United States the interesting, engaging and contentious society that it is. Free speech also has consequences. Words are the fuel that propel the engine of ideas. Understanding what we say and its meaning seems to be losing importance in the social mediasphere where anything seems to be fair game. Where vitriol and misunderstanding are currency.

But I strongly argue that now is the exact time for our leaders on all levels to be precise with their words. And I’m not talking about political correctness. I’m talking about human decency, empathy and respect. The student walkouts last week were about teenagers coming to grips with an issue that impacts their lives. It’s an issue that frightens them. It’s an issue they know isn’t going away. Gun violence on campuses is a subject our nation needs to seriously address on some level worth more than rhetoric. The students who wish to express this to our elected leaders have no other forum from which to do so other than in large groups speaking from their own campuses.

In many corners, I’ve seen these students castigated as “leftists.” I suspect most haven’t fully formed political ideas firm enough for such labeling. They’re more worried than political but they do understand a political statement is required for some attention. I believe the students should be saluted for their civic engagement and doing so within the rules. It wasn’t so much a walkout but a memorial as well as a peaceful demonstration carried out without rancor and within the boundaries set by education officials.

Students in my view are advocating for safer schools, something that impacts their lives every day. Gun control measures might be one of many ways to reach that goal — or not. Either way, gun control alone won’t do it. A lot of things need to be addressed to make not just schools safer, but life in the United States. A big one is to look at ourselves and understand the messages we send each day. Gun advocates, for example, would be well advised to support the students with education and not criticism. Today’s students are tomorrow’s voters. They will remember.

As for Amy Galey’s Friday post, well, it’s hard for me to look past it. These kinds of false equivalencies are too common in online debates, which devolve into nonsensical comparisons and false perceptions. Political leaders absolutely must do better. Dragging the Confederate flag into the free speech debate over something as important as school violence shows awful judgment. If a leader misunderstands something so basic, what else does that leader not understand?

 

 

 

 

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