Don't be so suspicious

I use this slide in my presentations on FOIA. On one side of it is a snarling, ferocious, uniformed man pinning the head of another man against a wall. On the other side is the (original) Gladys Kravitz, the nosy next-door neighbor of Samantha and Darrin (both Darrins) Stephenson on Bewitched.

The slide is to remind my audience of the dangers of stereotypes. The angry, territorial government worker is a stereotype, as is the gossipy, gadfly citizen intent on stirring up trouble. These people do exist. There wouldn’t be stereotypes if there weren’t some truth to them. If one side goes in with guns blazing expecting to find their opposite stereotype on the opposite side of the counter, well they’re both likely to find them. But they are the exceptions, I think (I hope), and not the rule.

The trouble is there is so much suspicion of the “other” that it is much too easy to rely on stereotypes.

In just the past two weeks, I have heard the following phrase multiple times: I don’t trust him/her because he/she is a __________.

Fill in the blank with: lawyer, reporter, Republican, Democrat, delegate, county employee, lobbyist, etc.

I’m not kidding. I hear this kind of stuff just about every day.

Everyone is so sure everyone else is out to get them, make them look bad, get in their way. They’re being coerced, intimidated, lied to, targeted.

The government side of the counter points and says: they’re using FOIA as a weapon, to bring government to its knees.

The records requester side of the counter points and says: they’re using fees and exemptions and procedural loopholes to keep me from finding out what they don’t want me to know.

Both of these formulaic scenarios have taken place, and they are the situations that cause headaches, lawsuits and legislative proposals.

How many of those could have been avoided, though, if everyone could just for a moment consider that maybe, just maybe, that duck right there, is actually a duck.

Government officials seem to forget that citizens are exercising a statutory right. They are trying to get records they are entitled to under an incredibly complex law. They’re not trying to gum up the government’s gears, they just want information that is important to them.

Requesters seem to forget that the law does allow for exemptions to be used when applicable and it does allow fees to be charged. They are telling you “no” or “how much” when the law allows them to, not because they’re trying to get you to back off.

Everyone forgets because everyone is suspicious. Maybe at a micro, personal level there is a good reason for that based on past relationships. But at a macro level, we could all do well to assume that it is entirely possible, entirely plausible, that the other side is actually acting in good faith.

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