Once again, Amherst is in the news for the resignations of town leaders, and once again, the word “vitriol” in town politics is used as an explanation. As a town resident and observer of town politics for more than a decade, there is another explanation, namely indifference to the common good.
Most would agree that anger is rightly experienced when an individual or group with less power believe they have been mistreated or discriminated against by those with more power. In the case of actions at the Amherst Middle School that harmed members of the LGBTQI community, many in the community called for “right action” to be taken by those in power. In this case, fairness dictated placing the school superintendent on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the incidents that created harm. This action was important to create trust in the response of those in power. Instead, actions were taken that could be perceived as being based on racial privilege with the decision to place staff, who were people of color, on administrative leave while allowing the white superintendent who supervised these staff, to remain at his job. While some in the community that experienced harm may have acted out their anger by name calling, most were simply asking for a reasonable reconsideration of this decision.
Unfortunately, some voices with more power in the community, most notably within the Amherst Forward PAC, went into defensive mode with a public relations response asserting that School Superintendent Morris was a good leader. This defensive response ignored calls for action based on fairness and the common good. In this case, the question was not whether Superintendent Morris was a good leader, but rather how harm was allowed to happen under his watch, so that in the future all students could feel safe at school. The truth is, even good leaders make mistakes, and when mistakes happen either by a leader or by staff under their supervision, leaders need to be held accountable, do their best to make things right, and apologize for harm done.
To avoid future vitriol in Amherst politics, it will be vital to discern those voices that seek fairness for the less powerful in our community from those who are indifferent to the common good. There is an insidious erosion of democracy whenever the common good is ignored.
Peggy Matthews-Nilsen is a retired psychotherapist, and an Amherst resident since 2009, with family roots that go back to the founding of the town.