That whiff of bitter almonds

OK, I know I’ve ranted here before about how people should get involved to make a difference in their communities. Generally I keep a positive attitude about any way that a person wants to get involved, but lately there’s been a trend that I wish I hadn’t noticed.

First, a little history. I stumbled across a long-lost Internet discussion list the other day, the Twin Cities Freenet’s SafetyNet group. It was archived on their old site.

On more than a lark back in 1997, a bunch of TCFNer’s decided to get a metro-wide group to chat about crime and safety issues, and volunteers with the TCFN had set up the best of both online forum worlds — online for those who wanted to log in and chat in real time, and by e-mail following the subject thread for those who preferred responding in bits and bytes.  

The discussions on SafetyNet ranged from boom cars to restorative justice, citizen patrols to cruising, and the quality of the conversation was excellent — none of the flaming we heard was going on in some of those “alt.subject” lists out there.

Woody Allen once said, “90 percent of life is just showing up.” And most of those who showed up on SafetyNet contributed to the discussion. The tone was civil, and suggestions for progress on the crime front were argued in the spirit of unity — or as we would say in Lyndale, “Unity, not unanimity.”

I may be imagining the good old days of an Internet that wasn’t so good, but it just seems to me that the quality of the chatter on e-mail discussion lists these days has fallen.  If your favorite listservs seem to be more of a chore than a pleasure to follow or participate in, I commiserate. If you now spend more time correcting misinformation than learning from others, might I suggest one possible reason for this decline? It’s the well-poisoners.

You know the type — they may not know it themselves, or admit it if they do. They are the occasional 1 percent of those who show up at community meetings, and now in online forums, and aren’t really there to participate in a solution.  Instead, they are only there to poison the well of community spirit that brought people into the community center or URL to begin with.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, maybe you’ll recall well-poisonings in progress similar to the following:

The speaker is recognized by the chair and rises to address the motion to approve some zoning variance or budgetary expenditure. Before 30 seconds have passed, he has seamlessly connected the motion to the perceived influence of the Iron Range Mafia over your neighborhood board, and closes his argument with web pics of an allegedly forged birth certificate of a well-known Pacific Islander.

Or, regardless of the agenda item, someone interrupts to complain about graffiti prevention proposals from three meetings prior, flail in grief over the removal of a no-turn-on-red sign on their corner, or wax poetic about how an apartment building down the street that takes Section 8 tenants is the cause of all the trouble in the neighborhood. They want their pound of flesh from the taggers, the right-turners, and Section-8ers and no sense of propriety or mandates of protocol will get in their way. In sum, a practiced well-poisoner will derail rational, focused and cordial conversation into the roundhouse of a different train station entirely.  

And following my own rule, “Never complain without offering a solution,” just what can be done about them?  

You may laugh, but wait: It wouldn’t hurt to learn the basics of Robert’s Rules of Order. You don’t need to know many of them — in fact a couple, if enforced with a smile, will do the trick more often than not. For instance, the one about “all comments must be addressed to the chair” is a great way to keep the oratory from descending into personal jabs. A simple “point of order” when any speaker strays from speaking to the motion pretty much quashes the conspiracy theorists. With minor revisions, these and other selected rules from the immortal Robert would serve online forums well.

Another tactic has been deployed with success by one community group I know: They have given the well-poisoner his own five minutes on the agenda to say whatever he wants — the chair announces, “And now we will hear from Gunnar Wingknut.”

If you’re now starting to get a bit worried that you may be pegged as a flamer by your online forum moderator or committee chair, here’s a tip on how to keep yourself in the moderator’s, or chair’s, or fellow neighborhood association members’ good graces:

Don’t live beyond your mental means. God gave you brains enough and a surplus of axons to think things through before you speak. So when you have a beef with your neighborhood council, your alderpeeps, or Hizzoner, get some facts and chew on them before blowing undigested indignation on the rest of us, whether at a community meeting or online.

For the rest of us: When you catch that whiff of bitter almonds, don’t put up with it. It isn’t “informing the discussion” but rather, it’s drying up the wellspring of magnanimity so crucial to building community.  

Luther Krueger is a crime prevention analyst for the Minneapolis Police Department. He lives in the Lyndale Neighborhood.