The Working Waterfront

‘What’s goin’ on?’ is how ‘we’ solve problems

Rhetoric, language, and logic must be refined

Tom Groening
Posted 2020-07-01
Last Modified 2020-07-01

By Tom Groening

We’ve seen, and maybe experienced first-hand, the conflict that comes when people have different ideas about safe public conduct in light of COVID-19. Recently, the issue was put before Judith Martin, aka columnist “Miss Manners,” on NPR, and I thought her response was enlightening well beyond the matter of social distancing.

If a masked person encounters an unmasked person who stands too close in the aisle of a grocery store, what’s the best way to respond? Angrily demanding the person move back, with a sharp comment about the efficacy of wearing a mask, is one way to go. But Martin suggested saying this instead: “It seems like we need more distance here.”

The key word in that sentence is “we,” Martin explained. Rather than drawing a line in the sand, the concerned shopper has engaged the other person as a kind of partner in solving a problem. “We” need to figure something out, as an opening gambit, is far less confrontational, and likely to slow a potential slide to anger.

I have friend who is an officer with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, and he told me that when he arrives at the often remote, rural location of a family or neighborhood dispute, he begins with a simple and intentionally casual question: “What’s goin’ on?”

It invites explanation, he says, and suggests that he brings no preconceived ideas about who is in the right.

Why is any of this important? One obvious application is in law enforcement. Community policing, which had begun to gain traction in recent years, is an approach that breaks down the division between those in uniform patrolling or responding, and those who live on those streets.

But I had planned on tackling this topic before the death of George Floyd. As someone who majored in English, and as a former editorial writer, I’ve long been fascinated by the use of rhetoric, language, and logic to persuade.

We wring our hands about the divided state of our body politic, yet the only recourse that’s recommended is to just stop being extreme. I think a far more effective way to change this state of affairs is to pay closer attention to how we communicate.

The tactics of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s were effective, but they have become our go-to tools, and maybe we can do better.

There’s a current TV ad that paints U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon as “too risky for Maine” by citing her support in the Maine Legislature for a gas tax hike. The ad features a young man standing next to his pickup, saying a fill-up would cost $10 more if Gideon had her way.

It’s mostly accurate, but fails to provide any context. Transportation officials have repeatedly said they can’t keep up with road and bridge repairs because the gas tax isn’t generating enough money. To fill funding gaps, we instead approve bonds for transportation projects.

Now, if we were to tell pickup truck guy that borrowing money, with interest, means that road repairs will actually cost more than they would under a gas tax hike, would that change his mind? Instead of presenting the issue as “gas tax bad,” I’d like to ask our Sara Gideon critic whether the roads are in good shape, and if not, what would he (or the candidate he supports) do about it.

In Belfast, where I live, there has been opposition over the last few years to a proposed land-based salmon farm. One of the tactics opponents have used is to suggest that dredging along the shore for pipes to bring seawater to the farm and dump filtered discharge will stir up mercury which in turn might be absorbed by lobster. Signs proclaim the opposition’s desire to “protect our lobstermen.”

Now, there is mercury at the mouth of the Penobscot River several miles away, and lobstering is prohibited there, but there is no evidence that mercury is in the bottom where the pipes would go. Who doesn’t want to protect lobstermen, right? And so a universally revered Maine icon is dragged as a proxy into a fight.

The fish farm may or may not cause environmental harm, but this tactic is disingenuous and inaccurate.

Public policy aims to solve public problems. But if we fail to talk about the problems and possible solutions, and instead twist logic and language to argue the other side will always fail to fix it, we haven’t done the work. The work is, as Miss Manners would say, to turn “you” into “we.”

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront.