The shooting slaughter in Tucson Jan. 8 and the subsequent national debate about the tone and effect of our political rhetoric came home to roost in San Juan County recently. The media reported that several "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters, threatening members of the environmental group Great Old Broads for Wilderness had been discovered by county and Bureau of Land Management officials at various remote trailheads.
The posters were most likely yet another product of the reckless rhetoric that has almost become normal in today's political debate. In Utah, no subject is more rancorous than wilderness. The fact that something as beautiful as our scenery generates so much hate is a stunning reality. But it's been like this in Utah for decades. Increasingly, the debate isn't even about our public lands anymore; it's about the people who want to use them.
Environmentalists complain about all-terrain vehicles and their impacts, but many of them simply loathe the ATV drivers, sight unseen, whether they handle their machines responsibly or not. On the other hand, rural conservatives mock the mountain bikes that have become so ubiquitous, even though it's not really the bicycles they despise but rather the Lycra-clad riders atop them.
As the rural West becomes more urbanized, the sheer physical proximity of opposing points of view makes the debate even meaner. I've lived in Monticello in southern Utah for years now and have rarely heard the kind of hurtful language displayed on those "Wanted" posters. But it's there if you pay attention. And you'd be hard-pressed to find many local residents willing to condemn these senseless rants. The majority of people may privately oppose ATV abuse, but who wants to ally themselves with environmentalists?
And the other side? Have the "progressive" environmentalists been any less contemptuous in their assessment of rural Utahns? For decades, I've heard condescending sneers -- almost non-stop -- from people who claim to know better. For example, in her book, Trespass: Living on the Edge of the Promised Land, Utah environmentalist and author Amy Irvine found little to admire during her brief time as a resident of San Juan County. A self-proclaimed ex-Mormon and a sixth-generation Utahn, she describes the moment when Mormon missionaries come to her door:
" 'Come back and preach at me,' I bellow, 'when you've made love -- to someone other than each other. When you've seen death. When you've walked -- not driven -- across the desert.' I close the door on their pink and earnest faces."
That was just the first of many insults hurled at her neighbors in Monticello. She mocked the people, their conservative values, their modest dress code, even the lack of a good merlot in a little Mormon town where most don't drink alcohol. It should not have come as a surprise that she wasn't embraced by the community.
But although very few open-minded people would find that kind of scornful reproach productive, not a single liberal came to the town's defense. Like their conservative cousins, nobody wanted to be seen defending their ideological opponents.
I don't include these comments to further inflame an already volatile situation, but to remind everyone that hurtful language is hardly limited to one viewpoint. What I see are two very different kinds of poisonous language, each equally destructive.
Who started it? At this point, it doesn't matter. What should matter is the realization that as these two sides demonize each other with ever increasing ferocity, the notion that there could be any common ground is being lost amid the vicious thrusts.
Whether liberal or conservative, we share so much; we love our families and our friends. We all know the pain of loneliness and guilt and regret, and the joy of hope and renewal and redemption. We endure the sadness of death and rejoice in newfound happiness. We all have demons and we all struggle to overcome them.
And believe it or not, we can all cherish a sunset sky at Grandview Point, whether seen from the perspective of a solitary hiker or from the seat of an all-terrain vehicle.
The impressions and ideas that guide our actions are so often misguided and poorly conceived. It's not that our own rhetoric is directly responsible for the actions of others, it's that we need to acknowledge that cruel words and hateful speech are actions unto themselves. And surely we must be held responsible for that.
Jim Stiles is the editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr magazine and lives in Monticello, Utah.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.