Rutland Alderman Paul Clifford’s weekend Facebook post was most unfortunate.
It proved, once again, just how powerful messages can be in our internet-charged age.
Clifford posted a meme photograph to his social media page that depicts a white woman and her three children seemingly in poverty-stricken circumstances, with the caption reading, “White privilege: The ability to suffer life’s universal indignities without blaming another ethnic group,” according to a provided screenshot of the post. The post, which has since been deleted from Clifford’s Facebook page, ignited discussions around the community (and the state) about white privilege and racism. In those conversations have been calls of condemnation.
It is unfortunate a public servant with a long history in city government showed such a lapse in judgment. He was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1988 and was discussed as a potential board president in 1994 — a race he ultimately bowed out of. He left the board in 1997 to take a job with the Department of Public Works, and rose to the commissioner’s post in 2004. He served in that position until he was removed by then-mayor Christopher Louras in 2009. He was re-elected an alderman in 2018. By all accounts, Clifford is well-known in the city and in the greater Rutland area.
But in his capacity as an elected official, and a longtime community leader, Clifford should have known better.
Public officials must work at a higher standard than citizens. They are held there as leaders because they are meant to exemplify qualities that rise above the ordinary din of our general populace and push discussions more toward problem-solving and progress. They need to live by example. No matter how the meme is intended, it points to mocking and it undermines the notion of white privilege — that there are certain societal and systemic benefits that white people enjoy that people of color do not.
Our elected officials must be regularly schooled — by the secretary of state or the Vermont League of Cities and Towns — on the limitations of messaging, especially on social media. That medium is like attaching a megaphone to any message, no matter how innocuous. Personal opinions can alienate entire sectors of the population elected officials are meant to represent. So to earn and maintain the respect that voters place upon them, they must always demonstrate a mutual respect for citizenry as a whole.
The post in question defies that logic. Clifford admitted the post was his. He has not stated why he felt compelled to share that particular opinion with his many online “friends.”
For certain, the timing of the post was most unfortunate. Regardless of the message, it strikes a dissonant chord for much of the nation, which is clearly divided over direction. And those directions are rooted right now in an ugliness and division we have not seen this starkly in generations. The white privilege and race debates spark hate speech and, in some cases, have led to violence.
Using social media as a propaganda weapon, we have seen a concerted nationalistic shift in the United States, and the repercussions of that movement are revealing how far apart we are on many social, political and policy issues.
Partisanship only picks at those deep wounds; ignorance slaps down any semblance of meaningful discussion, leaving us in that void caused by gridlock. All of that anxiety grows exponentially when fear and uncertainty are introduced. Our leaders — locally and all the way up to the White House — need to encourage actions and dialogue that unite our communities and states, not fracture them.
Social media and the internet have given us ample (and highly accessible) tools to express ourselves, challenge opinions we don’t like and push agendas — big and small — all behind that veil of a keyboard.
Public officials get no such anonymity, nor should they. They are dogged by scrutiny and criticism. By representing all people, not just the ones who voted for them or agree with them, public officials, especially an alderman, need to be open to all people, all ideas and all solutions. It is a commonality that fuels the democratic process and free thought.
As defenders of the First Amendment, we agree public officials are allowed to have opinions. In the end, those opinions either need to be argued and defended in the public arena, or those opinions need to be cast aside if they cut against the grain of the constituency.
We expect Clifford will be called upon to explain this lapse in judgment. And given the subject matter in the context of our times, in a community that has been working hard to improve its image as inclusive and forward-thinking, Clifford will apologize.