Letter to the editor: More tolerance needed in our political discourse

Across from the Middlebury Inn, in the small park that is enclosed by the rotary, there is a monument to Middlebury’s soldiers who answered our country’s call during the Civil War and World War I. I can find the name of my great-grandfather Patrick Mulligan who, with dozens of fellow Vermonters from Middlebury and Cornwall, stood in Company E 14th Vermont Volunteer Infantry. On a hot early July day in 1863, the brave soldiers of Company E faced the desperate charge of General Pickett’s Virginians.
A bit further down I can place my finger on the name of my great uncle Frank L. Goss, who was a machine gunner in the 4th Infantry Division at the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in France in 1918.
Our little town has changed greatly in the 150 years since my great-grandfather served and the almost 100 years since uncle Frank waited at the train station down by Fire and Ice to travel to Fort Devens in Massachusetts for basic training. We live in different times with challenges and dangers unimaginable to them.
The Middlebury of 2018 is a far more diverse and complicated community than it was during their lifetimes. Were they able to return from their past to visit our present, they would recognize some parts of Main Street — the Congregational Church, St. Stephens, or perhaps the Addison House (which is now the Middlebury Inn). They would marvel at the Cross Street Bridge and be astounded by the college on the hill that has grown to dominate the village. It is a different world and a vastly different Middlebury.
Recent letters in the Independent have reminded me that Vermont has become less of a quiet backwater and more part of the mainstream of American culture than my great uncle or great-grandfather could ever have imagined. The editorials and letters in this paper discuss political issues and national events and thoughtful and diverse opinions are voiced. No one would argue that we have not gained a great deal since my forbears served both Middlebury and our country. We are safer, more prosperous, better educated and far more connected by electronics and personal transportation. Yet it seems we have become at the same time less tolerant and less respectful of cultural and political diversity.
Reasonable people can have disagreements. They can survey the same events and come to remarkably different conclusions. It seems that we are in danger of losing our ability and willingness to respect other opinions and come to compromises. Granted most of us respect the concept of being “uncompromising.” It connotes deep conviction and a desire to be progressive, both laudable qualities. But the gridlock so evident in Washington concerning critical national issues like who sits on the Supreme Court and gun violence reminds us that the loss of civility and the ease with which we disrespect and dismiss those who may disagree with our positions creates a climate where no useful progress towards solutions can be found.
If we tout diversity and respect, then we must be willing to model those qualities and not have them be more than mere empty words. I think the motto of think globally and act locally is apt. We ought to be concerned about important issues and national issues, but we must also be able and willing to discuss them here at home in Vermont in a fashion that promotes understanding and pathways to compromise. I think my great uncle and great-grandfather would approve of that.
J.M. Ross

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