Focus on problems, not enemies

Noted editorial columnist William Raspberry recently gave a commencent speech at North Carolina State University, recycling his thoughts as a syndicated column.

“The best advice I can give those who would change – who would improve – our world,” Raspberry told graduates, “is to learn the difference between problems and enemies.”

When confronted with a problem, he said, the all-too-common tendency is to look for an enemy. We see this on a grand scale in the Middle East. The problem is very real – too many people and too little land. But attempts to resolve that problem have been drowned out by the attacks, accusations, suspicions and recriminations that characterize the dealings of enemies with one another.

Not only is the toll enormous and the difficult to contain – indeed, the rancor in that volatile region threatens to engulf the globe – but the efforts to vanquish the enemy do little or nothing to address the underlying problem.,

Raspberry’s comments also seem particular resonant for Bainbridge Island.

Our “problem,” if it can properly be characterized as such, is that this is a wonderful place to live and is widely perceived so. Folks want to be here, and are willing to make significant sacrifices to make that happen. We know the results – rising prices for land and housing, new developments, more traffic, new faces, all manner of changes.

“Give us a problem and we’ll find an enemy,” Raspberry says. We islanders are not immune from that process. Some demonize newcomers, particularly well-heeled ones. Others find the enemy to be old-timers who dismiss out of hand anyone who wasn’t born here. Some believe the enemy to be the developers; others target the “no-growth” environmentalists.

Then there are the old standby “enemies” – city hall bureaucrats, the mayor, the council, you name it. Even the local newspaper occasionally shows up on “enemy” lists.

But on the island, as elsewhere, going after “the enemy” doesn’t really help. If the city tried to stop development in the face of existing demand, the results would almost surely be grossly higher prices for housing and myriad lawsuits, which the city would probably lose.

Far from being productive, the search for enemies can actually make it more difficult to address the real problem.

Addressing a campus that was fragmenting into various grievance-based interest groups, Raspberry said, “Doesn’t it strike you that many of the grievances would be much easier to resolve if the campus did become more of a community? And doesn’t it strike you that at the end of the day, community is what most of us in fact want”?

Thursday, we came together to celebrate our community and our nation, putting aside for a day our disagreements. When we get “back to business,” let’s remember that those faces we saw in the crowd downtown aren’t enemies, but only friends with different approaches to our challenges.

If we keep that in mind, our problems may become a lot more tractable.

And we can promote, rather than endanger, the sense of community that we all cherish.

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