By Dick Sonnichsen
A friend of mine from Minnesota brags about the friendliness of the people of his state, a concept the inhabitants call “Minnesota Nice.” “Minnesota Nice” is a cultural stereotype applied to Minnesotans who are mild-mannered and friendly, with an aversion to open confrontation. I have not spent much time in Minnesota, so I can’t vouch for the truth of his statement, but the notion of being friendly and cordial intrigues me. I wonder if we could adopt that approach here in Idaho and build a reputation among fellow inhabitants and visitors for being “Idaho Nice.” We could begin experimenting with the concept right here in Bonner County.
The quality of life in Bonner County is one of the primary reasons we live here, and I imagine most of us do so because of the area’s rural nature, the abundant opportunities for recreation, the low population and lack of crowded urban areas. Rural life is rooted in the shared values of independence, community, hard work, common sense, tradition and freedom from unreasonable government intrusion.
Most of us should be able to agree on two things: our goal in life is to be as happy as possible and improving the quality of life for everyone should be the goal of elected officials. Our own well-being depends on the well-being of others. Some of us live at the end of long dirt roads, some on the lake, some on mountain sides, some in town; but, no matter where we live, we are all affected by the same social and political problems.
There is a profound urgency to the task of agreeing on thorny issues. Rural America is not immune from world problems. It’s important to address controversial topics in a cooperative manner. Collaborating with others improves the quality of life for ourselves and our neighbors. Something has to change, or the quality of life in Bonner County we cherish will quickly disintegrate and what once was an attractive place to live will become a county of bitter malcontents.
We have become susceptible to misinformation, fragmentary data, conspiracy theories and outright lies. Important traits to develop are the twin analytical tools of skepticism and critical evaluation of information. We are poorly served by political labels, partisan minds and hardened ideological positions that impede creative solutions to tough problems. Unfortunately, noisy opposition and posturing captures attention and causes confusion. Hardened political and religious convictions become extreme views immune to attempts at persuasion.
If we increase our tolerance for opposing views, that will expose our differences that can then be evaluated. Then reason and a spirit of cooperation and compromise can move us forward to common ground and solutions to controversial issues.
Everyone benefits when open-minded people interact with each other in a mutually supportive fashion. We may need to examine our subjective viewpoints, reassess our prior understanding of issues and form new conceptions. If we could develop a little tolerance for views we don’t share and closely examine the differences, there is a potential for some common ground, which could be the basis for problem solving using the facts in evidence.
Quelling discontent should be a priority. Unfortunately, we have color-coded the county red and blue — mostly red — with different interpretations of the Constitution. A functional democracy depends on collective acceptance of the legitimacy of certain rules, laws, norms and institutions. Yet, there seems to be mutual hostility between the blues and the reds and little agreement on emotive issues. Activists on both the left and right are pulling us apart on opposing views of what constitutes freedom and liberty. Shallow ideologies, shaky mythologies, whimsical opinions and outright distortions complicate progress toward solutions and prevent shaping rational community values. At the very least, we should seek some common ground and unite to solve problems that confront all of us.
What’s the point of living in Bonner County if we are unhappy and constantly bickering over questions that have little to do with the enjoyment of daily life? Our conversations on emotive issues should be pragmatic and based on values, not on the color of the political flag we are draped in. Small towns are often noted for their openness and friendliness. We could practice neighborliness and develop a congenial town atmosphere.
We share the world with each other but seem unable to carry on a rational conversation with anyone who disagrees with our viewpoints. We were unable to unite as a community to fight a viral pandemic, but we may find a glimpse of common ground if we listen with an ideologically free mind and interest in the common good. At the very least, we should be able to agree on the essence of a problem and critically examine pragmatic options for solutions. We have the gift of freedom and an opportunity to define our culture.
Our brief life span ensures that we are all temporary residents in Bonner County, not owners. The county belonged to others before we arrived and it will belong to someone else after we’re gone. We are temporary trustees and it is our responsibility not to mess up what others have left us. The profound questions facing Bonner County residents are why do we live here and what do we want the county to look like?
Let’s all begin practicing “Idaho Nice” and see what happens.
Dick Sonnichsen grew up in North Idaho, is a former FBI special agent and the author of several books.
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