Anna Polumbo-Levy: Start a conversation

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 6:18pm

The first time that I ever found a spider in my house, after a bit of screaming and running around and yelling for my mom, we eventually caught it in a jar and set it free outside. And except under dire circumstances, I still try to make sure the little guys, and gals, make it out alive.

Which is why when the Daily’s Editorial Board first discussed the deer cull — a city-wide plan to manage the deer populations by hiring sharpshooters to kill, and now sterilize, deer — I was adamant that a deer cull was entirely wrong in any circumstance. It was an issue I saw as framed as one of convenience for humans, and I believed that was wrong. The deer were here before humans, we built on their land, we’re driving on their land, so we shouldn’t have the authority to kill them — especially since the deer cannot defend themselves against it. And at the time, the Editorial Board was almost completely divided, so we didn’t take a formal stance on the issue.  

Last fall, when it came time to endorse a candidate for a contested city council seat, I was wary of the fact that one of the candidates, Chuck Warpehoski, was an outspoken proponent of the cull. Having been a staunch opponent of the cull up to that point, I really struggled with the fact that it was one of the issues he explicitly approved of. Nonetheless, because we believed he was, overall, the stronger candidate of two, I, along with the majority of the Editorial Board, voted to endorse him.

Through various interviews, we learned Warpehoski was an environmentalist, and his support for the deer cull was one that came from an ecological standpoint. The overpopulation of deer is a problem for people and drivers, but more crucially it is making Ann Arbor less ecologically diverse, as we have removed their natural predators. So, when the Editorial Board finally decided to try, again, to take a stance on the deer cull last winter, as I looked around the room, I could see how framed in a new light, with new information in hand (via Warpehoski), the deer cull made more sense to some people than it had before — it definitely made more sense to me. In the end, the vast majority of the Editorial Board voted to endorse the deer cull. If we are given more information on divisive issues, it may help different sides get their points across better. 

In a recent interview, City Council candidate for Ward 1, Anne Bannister, cited transparency as a primary campaign platform. And it should be, as I believe it is one of the most important things for a public official to work toward — yet it is one that many still fail to reach because goals that are viewed as more “tangible” seem to take priority. But I believe this is one of the most crucial issues. While Bannister was speaking more broadly about the need for citizens to trust their representatives, it got me thinking about how important transparency is, not only from elected officials, but also at the more personal level.

In this case, I saw very clearly how Warpehoski’s transparency when it came to why he supported the deer cull made me less wary of him, less wary of the cull and more able to see a side I had originally thought was completely wrong. Being able to more thoroughly understand the issue also had an impact on Bannister, who says in her interview, though an animal lover who believes animals should always be “treated with respect,” she realized the deer cull was necessary for rebalancing the ecology of Ann Arbor — an ecology that us, humans, unbalanced. She cited information she learned from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance.

There needs to be more Warpehoskis in public office, more Bannisters who take the time to explain their stances. Answers like ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ‘wrong’ and ‘right,’ only go so far and can shut down a conversation in a split second. Once I better understood the issue of the deer cull as not just about inconveniences for drivers, but as an issue of ecological imbalance — since humans eliminated their natural predator, the wolf — I could make a more informed decision. I could better evaluate arguments on each side of the issue. And even just between two friends or coworkers, transparency can often be key to allowing another person to understand your side.

That’s not to say I will change my mind every time I hear another side of an issue, and when it comes to protecting wildlife, supporting the deer cull is a pretty big exception. (If you look at my sad excuse for a Twitter account, you’ll see it’s mostly videos of baby animals.) But there is a problem, and the problem lies with not having access to the other side. Someone saying that they approve of x, or that they don’t like y, without an explanation, doesn’t lead to a conversation — more likely, it becomes two people who may now be angry at each other because they don’t understand the other side. Of course, if you’re trying to shove your viewpoint down someone’s throat, even if you have all the facts in the world, it won’t matter. But simply explaining why you see the issue one way, without trying to persuade the other side, could have an effect.

It’s true, we shouldn’t have to give a reason for every single little thing we do in life, and there are tactical reasons not to talk about every little thing we plan to do, but when they impact many different people or they impact even one individual in a way that impacts them greatly, it’s important to be open to a discuss, to give more detailed reasoning. Not only when it’s the duty of someone in public office, but also, in larger part, it’s a simple way to make people feel as though you are listening and care that they have the tools to understand why a decision that may seemingly be inflammatory at first glance, is based in thought and fact.

We won’t always change our opinions, given more information from the other side, but there is almost no chance someone will change their mind if they are not even provided with the reasoning of the other side, we will almost never change our opinions.  For many people who aren’t well informed on the issue, it’s hard to not look at something like a deer cull as completely unnecessary, another blow to our already endangered wildlife. So, I implore our elected officials, University of Michigan administration and any and all other actors of change, to just explain. Not simply disseminate pamphlets, or hope that journalists will write about the issues and environmentalists will post on their websites and blogs. And to everyone else engaged in a discussion with another: if you make more of an effort to be forthright, transparent, explain your reasoning, who knows? You could just start a conversation. You could just have an effect.