OPINION: Hingham Runs on Volunteers, Not Keyboard Warriors

Tim Dempsey

April 2, 2024 By Tim Dempsey, Candidate for Reelection to Hingham School Committee

I originally decided to run for Hingham school committee in January of 2021. It was a highly divided time, with people in Hingham especially entrenched into competing camps…pro-mask vs anti mask, BLM vs “All Lives Matter,” Trump Vs Biden, in-person vs remote school. I saw how the community was talking about teachers during the pandemic and thought as a public school teacher I could bring some understanding and lower the temperature of the public debate around many of these issues. The Hingham Anchor literally published my campaign announcement during the January sixth attack on the Capitol, so I remember clicking between The Anchor article to see any reactions my announcement had garnered, and CNN to watch the violence unfold in Washington.

Our community has not gotten any less divided over the three years that made up my first term on the school committee. The one fact that has remained absolutely persistent during my first term is that every challenge that comes to the committee is met with two entirely separate conversations. One of these conversations happens in Town Hall in committee and board meetings, and the other is online. Only one of these conversations has any power to affect any real change. Only one of these conversations counts as actual civic participation. There is the adage that Hingham runs on volunteers. The inverse is also true, Hingham does not run on keyboard warriors, the people who take over the online discussions, and present every single issue using the most extreme rhetoric. This online conversation not only does not affect any actual change in Hingham, it is a distraction that prevents people from engaging in a real way about the issues they care about. It feels like civic participation without actually accomplishing anything.

Before I ran for school committee, I was absolutely a part of this ecosphere. I was the ultimate keyboard warrior, as deeply entrenched in the social divisions of the time as anyone, and would easily and loudly give my reaction to any Facebook post with no concern of how my words would be received. For example, there was a debate about flying a LGBTQIA Pride flag at town hall, and the Select Board decided that flying the flag opened Hingham up to too much liability and issued a statement celebrating Pride month instead. I posted on a Facebook discussion board about what a shameful disgrace the select board members were. I called them cowards for not hanging the flag. While it felt like civic participation to write the post, I never actually had to problem solve to find a way to fly the flag that would ease the Select Board’s concerns, or authentically engage with anyone who disagreed with me. My post did not change the town policy, or even engage with the issue in a way that was remotely productive. To this day a pride flag has not been flown at town hall. But more than harming a cause that I believed in, I hurt my relationships in town. I knew select board members who have told me afterwards how hurtful (and frankly, untrue) my words were, and it has taken me years to try and rebuild some of these relationships.

Another time, someone who I was casual friends in town with posted a supercut Youtube video of “Drag Queen Story Hour.” This clip used images taken out of context of an innocent and fun way to engage children in reading, and implied that it was something sordid, sexual, and abusive. I could have engaged with her to explain how I believe the video twisted and distorted reality, how videos like the one she posted made life in Hingham harder for me and my family by implying that LGBTQIA people are predators. (I am a gay man, with transgender people in my immediate family.) I could have had a conversation about how this rhetoric had real world consequences for me.  But instead the keyboard warrior in me came out, demanded she take the video down, and spoke of how bigoted her post was, and how prejudiced she must be. This was me at my worst. My response to her video was a lost opportunity to have a real conversation that could have been a teachable moment that may (or may not) have changed the way she thought about the issue. Of course I still have no idea what her actual views were because we never got that far in the conversation.  My response shut down the exchange and it turned into an online war of personalities. Rather than trying to have a real conversation, I tried to shame her into doing what I wanted, and remove the video. Needless to say, I did not change her mind, she did not remove the video, and I lost a friend. My words were more than being merely ineffective, they did real harm.

Before I was on the school committee, I believed that the online Facebook conversation drove the real world conversation, that town leaders obsessively read the discussion boards and took their guidance from them. I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. I have never spent less time online than I have since I have been on the school committee. Most elected officials in Hingham are the same way. This isn’t just because the online discussion is often conflict driven, toxic, and more often intended to humiliate and shame those who disagree. It is because the online discussion is a distraction. The people who are making decisions simply aren’t in the room. With rampant misinformation, Facebook is a particularly terrible place to get clarity of what is happening in Hingham. I no longer dive into the comments section of any Facebook posts because doing so is frustrating and ineffective. I could dive in and try to correct misinformation, but so many of the keyboard warriors make it impossible to join the discussion and fact check people, even when they are innocently mistaken. Rather, they double down in their misinformation, and the comment section becomes a toxic stew of he said she said nonsense that muddies the water to the point where the discussion becomes more about personal insults and shaming people you disagree with. The goal of online discussion is to shut people down, not to bring them along with you.

Amanda Ripley’s book High Conflict describes this phenomena better than I can. She talks of “conflict entrepreneurs” who drive conflict and disagreement for their own ends. Online discussion groups, especially unmoderated ones, inevitably are controlled by conflict entrepreneurs who magnify conflict by talking about things in the most extreme way possible. These involve personal attacks, blanket statements about whole swaths of our town, and false assumptions about others’ motivations. Not only is the online discussion a sideshow, it is a deeply unpleasant sideshow, so no wonder most of Hingham’s elected officials sit it out. It is a sideshow with the purpose of making town government harder, more unpleasant, and less grounded in reality. This is only getting worse with the new ability to post anonymously which completely severs public comments from any sense of accountability. It is horrible to fight against personal attacks and misinformation, but it is exponentially worse when the poster is anonymous.

Spring, normally a robust “Election Season” for Hingham with the streets lined with campaign signs and candidates standing out by the dump, has not a single contested election for any town position this year, so voters have no real choice at the ballot box. In 2024, Hingham is sitting out election season and our democracy is worse for it. I believe that this is because people have seen the online discussion and have said “no thanks” to volunteering for an online community that engages this way.

Normally this would be the point where I ask for your vote, and implore you to turn out on April 27th for the election. Seeing as how voters don’t have much of a choice this year, I will make a different ask. If your primary way of engaging with your community is through online discussions, I implore you to talk to people, attend committee and board meetings (many are available online via zoom), read official news sources such as The Anchor, and speak directly to your elected officials. Take what you read online with a grain of salt as misinformation is rampant and no one is fact checking. As my kids say, go touch grass once in a while, get offline, and join the real conversation. If I can change the way I interact with the online world, so can anyone in Hingham. In return, while I still have all my passionate beliefs about schools and education, I will engage with anyone respectfully, productively, and find common ground even where we may disagree. I am here to bring you along, not shut you down, even when we disagree. Email, call, or visit with your elected officials, because one thing I can absolutely promise is that if your advice or feedback for me is in the comments section of a facebook discussion group, I will not be reading it.

1 thought on “OPINION: Hingham Runs on Volunteers, Not Keyboard Warriors”

  1. Tim, your letter is dismissive and misleading. I have emailed the School Committee multiple times and spoken at public meetings, but you have never once replied. Not once. Not even “thanks for sharing your concerns”. If you are not going to listen to your constituents, it would be great if you could refrain from insulting us.

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