Three Brookdale students express their thoughts about politics at Civic Engagement Conference.
By Jerry Carino
Asbury Park Press
MIDDLETOWN – As part of a political science course at Brookdale Community College, students are required to attend a board of education meeting in their hometown.
Kerry Brooks and Krista Kozak did that this fall, and they were appalled by what they saw.
“It was so eye-opening – so many adults acting like children and making me so mad,” said Brooks, who hails from Freehold Township and attended a board meeting there. “So much bickering in the audience and people talking over each other. I couldn’t hear the board half the time because of the amount of bickering in the audience. It was so obnoxious.”
Kozak, an education major, attended a board meeting in Middletown. Parents of home-schooled children who live in the township have been asking that board to grant their kids permission to join the schools’ sports teams and clubs.
“One board member was saying he supports bringing home-schooled students into those activities, and someone else on the board said, ‘Good thing you’re not on policy,’” Kozak said. “I felt that was wild, to have a lack of respect like that in front of cameras, in front everyone.”
The experience inspired Kozak to attend Brookdale’s annual Civic Engagement Conference, which took place in the late-October run-up to Election Day and featured a timely panel discussion titled “Civility in an Uncivil Time.” The phrase “uncivil time” might be putting it lightly. Empowered by social media, more people are being rude to each other now than at any point in human history.
That’s not just an abstract concept. It’s a real problem for real people in our communities, as one panelist made clear while fighting back tears.
“People are really mean,” Samantha Roman told a conference room filled with Brookdale students.
Roman is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Jersey, a trade association. Her husband, John Francis Roman, is the public information officer for Aberdeen Township. They live in Linden, where Roman is running for reelection to that city’s council.
While fighting back tears, Samantha told the audience that Facebook attacks from critics became personal and continued even as she went into labor (the Romans, who are in their 30s, became new parents over the summer).
While Samantha encouraged the students to rise above such behavior, she also acknowledged how easy it is to get drawn into it.
“You have a hard time not responding when somebody is attacking your character, or attacking somebody that you love,” she said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a great feeling and I’ve stooped to it at times. It’s human nature, I think, to want to protect your family. It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this point in society.”
John Roman said he found himself expending so much precious late-night energy on his online detractors that he set up an alarm that shuts down his apps each night at 11.
“In our modern-day social media culture there’s really not a way to win an argument, and I learned that it was unproductive and not a good use of my time,” he said. “Certainly I think all of us have learned that the hard way. You’re not going to win an argument there, you’re not going to change anyone’s opinion. I’ll talk to people face to face rather than screaming at somebody who’s irrational on Facebook.”
One of the issues raised by women on the panel was whether the deterioration in civility is discouraging women from running for public office. Though there are more women than men in New Jersey, women are outnumbered in the state legislature and many other governing bodies.
“As much as I’d like to get involved, I don’t know if I would be supported enough,” said conference attendee Meghan Tobin, a criminal justice major from Tinton Falls. “I would be afraid of the hate I could get.”
As the Romans pointed out, people with political differences are not fated to hate each other. John Roman is in office as a Democrat, while Samantha Roman is a registered Republican.
“People say: How do you make that work?” John said. “Well, we’re closer (politically) than you think.”
Interacting face to face on a daily basis helps foster that realization. As the civic conversation moves increasingly online, such focus is harder to maintain.
That said, blame for our spike in vitriol does not rest solely at technology’s feet. The confrontations Brookdale’s students witnessed at school board meetings are in the flesh, perhaps sparked by national-level politicians screaming on TV news networks, which platform them as “a reward for being outrageous,” as Samantha Roman put it.
On Election Day, are we rewarding outrageousness? It’s something to think about.
“We have to stay civil, so these kids will want to get involved,” John Roman said, gesturing to a room full of college students.
Hopefully, it’s not too late.
“A lot of people are very angry, they’re stubborn about their own opinion and not very open to understanding other people’s opinions,” said Kozak, the education major. “A lot of back-and-forth fighting — I definitely don’t want to be a part of that.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.