Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.
Five years ago, I made a mistake. When I served on Morro Bay’s Recreation & Parks Commission, I got a lot of valuable life experience from serving on a government-led committee. The problem was I lacked the maturity to strike a balance between my resentment of the degradation of civil discourse and respect toward civil servants and my responsibilities as someone in a leadership role. As a result being a little too opinionated about some Los Osos residents who engaged in personal attacks at the podium at Board of Supervisors meeting and satirically mocking them, I was subjected to this unorthodox, seemingly anonymous smear campaign to unseat me from the commission. Then I resigned so that residents would no longer be subjected to harassment.
Fast forward five years later to news that San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner Jim Harrison resigned from his post nearly a week after it was discovered that he shared offensive memes on his Facebook profile, which compared Democrats to Nazis, and fanned flames of xenophobia and racism. The Planning Commission is a government body traditionally considered to be nonpartisan, so it was certainly eye-opening to see Harrison alienating a significant chunk of his constituency. He was so brazen in his actions that it was inconceivable to assume he wasn’t trying to incite outrage, yet he was Nipomo’s Citizen of the Year. He was active in his community as a volunteer and leader. He was responsible. And after giving a meager Facebook apology for posting content that “offended some people,” he reluctantly stepped down and declined the Citizen of the Year award. The county supervisor who appointed him to the Planning Commission, Lynn Compton, declined to issue any statement about Harrison’s posts.
This is when my past meets the present.
When I was in a similar committee position to Harrison, I was critical of a handful of citizens outside of my community for going before government bodies to personally attack officials or make salacious allegations. They were demanding civility of their elected representatives when they couldn’t commit to observing the same standards and set a good example of leaders to follow. Now, the reverse happened. The hateful posts Harrison disseminated on his public Facebook profile seemingly gave some residents the green-light to embrace that hatred — because Harrison is now considered an extreme right-wing, “free speech” martyr and role model to them.
Since the controversy started making headlines, I followed the conversation surrounding it on social media. Based on what I could see, the county is evenly split. It seems that half of residents on social media unequivocally condemned his posts, called for him to apologize and resign, and the other half defended his “truthful” free speech. By and large, Harrison’s supporters had a fundamental misunderstanding of how free speech works. There was absolutely nothing prohibiting Harrison from exercising his constitutional right, but that exercise doesn’t shield him from consequences. But what concerned me more than their intellectually lazy defenses were their full-throttled acceptance that people with opposing views were irredeemably evil. Even more concerning, some who actively condoned Harrison’s posts were public officials and community leaders themselves. There are leaders in our county who truly believe half of their community deserves hate.
For the past couple of days, I’ve debated internally on whether to name these individuals or allude to them by their profession in this column. Ultimately, I decided to do neither. People are certainly entitled to their opinions, as tactless and offensive as those opinions may be. But public shaming public officials needs to be limited to officials that represent a large constituency, engaging in conduct that alienates their constituency.
As someone who formerly served on a commission and generated controversy for making public remarks, I have a unique perspective on this.
It boils down to a simple premise: regardless of the leadership position you choose, you have to act like a leader. Whether you’re talking about a few people who speak at meetings or a major political party, whether you’re a volunteer, appointed or elected official, you have to be cognizant of the consequences for alienating your constituents. You may think, “I’m just expressing an opinion,” but that opinion carries more weight once you’re in a leadership position. But if you choose to continue having divisive public opinions about people, you can choose not to lead.
Some are going to read the previous paragraph and assume that I’m advocating suppression of strongly held views. This isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. It’s not a choice of saying something or saying nothing at all. It’s about time and place. It’s about having tact. It’s easy to confuse saying anything — or posting anything on social media, in this case — with actually having something to say. In the midst of that confusion, some of us will make a mistake and post something we probably shouldn’t have posted.
By sharing populist conservative memes on Facebook, Harrison was posting his supportive knee-jerk reaction to conservative outrage. He was speaking to his personal audience, never once considering that his publicly accessible posts would be seen by others who were being marginalized — until he was caught, that is. His distinct lack of tact and appreciation of his diverse constituency was what effectively disqualified him from holding a traditionally nonpartisan leadership position. It was never about suppressing or canceling his free speech.
This should be a teaching moment for all potential and active community leaders. Leading with a balanced tone and perspective should never be underrated.