Washburn

When Venom Overwhelms: A Mediator in Despair

Whew! 
 
I just read the article on the controversy over proposed bike lanes east of downtown Washington, D.C. It was kind of heavy going as I tried to sort out the different proposals illustrated in the many graphics. I really studied them, thinking that there must be some that would be acceptable, or could be modified to meet all needs. 
 
Image credit: DC DDOT

 

What a naïve mediator I am!  I thought the conflict was about bike safety and parking needs, a conflict over land use and what priorities prevail in a congested area. Then I dipped into the online comments and realized how completely off-track I was. The church may have made a poor choice in claiming that the constitutional right to freedom of religion somehow includes the right to park, because this really set readers off. The primary issue, according to dozens of online pundits, is taxation. Churches don’t pay taxes, to paraphrase, and therefore don’t have a right to tell the City what to do. This then spun into wild arguments about who pays taxes and what rights ensue, culminating, for me, with “pedestrians don’t pay taxes, let’s rip up the sidewalks.” It was all quite entertaining on one level, but on another level it was depressing. Commenters spewed venom against this particular church, and religion in general. Why couldn’t the church members walk a few blocks? Why didn’t they ride their bicycles to church? What made them so special? Why didn’t they stay home in Maryland and pray? What use are churches anyway? And lots more. And of course they insulted each other and seemed to be competing for the bullying prize. 
 

 

Actual comments to the Washington Post article. Image credit: Washington Post

 

 
Mediators have a mantra: be hard on the problem, not on the people. In other words, tackle the issues with energy and ferocity, but treat each other with respect. How quickly that chorus of virtual commenters leapt at the people and completely ignored the problem. 
 
If I were meditating this dispute I would focus on the needs of the church and the needs of the bicyclists, and we would all sit down and study those proposed routes and surely we could find some solution. I would not allow certain issues to be raised, like taxation or the constitution or religious freedom. And if anyone cried out that I was stepping on their freedom of speech I would say, “tough.”