Whether it is driven by a topic of public policy, politics or something that perplexes me, I tend to let the words of my opinion pieces roll around in my brain for some time before moving my thoughts to text. While this submission is no different, it is also connected to the strong reaction, both mostly positive and somewhat negatively, to some recent thoughts I shared with your newspaper, titled, "Getting a much better understanding of West Virginia."
The words that I wrote previously were designed to convey some of the insights that I have learned upon returning to my home of Huntington to run our regional Chamber of Commerce. While the response from my membership and, in most other cases, was overwhelmingly positive, one of my insights created a mix of derision, condemnation and even the accusation of flippancy from a few friends, some (political) foes and other folks whom I don't know.
For context, here's the text: "We need to change 'The Struggle to Stay' to 'Maybe You Should Leave.' I know it's a common refrain from some of our residents that it is difficult to live in West Virginia. Like many of us, I worry greatly about the population decline in West Virginia and where it may lead us. However, if you only see negativity here and have soiled to the possibility that West Virginia can be improved and succeed, maybe you should leave."
While I think most of the people who were critical of this paragraph failed to read the entire piece or did not read beyond the selected paragraph's first sentence, please allow me to expound upon this thought.
It is the last sentence of the text in question that you should focus upon. As someone from Huntington, the large number of us who live here and are working to create positive change are all too familiar with the small number of constant and often unfair critics who seem hellbent at failing to see any positive movement, identifying outlandish conspiracies and propagating negativity at every turn. Wrapped in the message that promoting the good work being done here somehow ignores the proverbial "bad news" that occurs in every place, these "nattering nabobs" provide a drag on progress, reduce collaboration and morale, and further hopelessness.
I welcome constructive criticism if you are also working to improve our home, even in a manner or with a goal that I don't necessarily agree with. But if your total contribution is the equivalent of social media heckling from the sidelines, you are hurting our improvement efforts and are part of the problem we need to fix. In summary, we do not need your steadfast negativity bringing the rest of us down, and maybe you might find happiness elsewhere.
The "struggle" you refer to is not just here in West Virginia. Poverty, bigotry, injustice and hopelessness are not unique to West Virginia or Appalachia. While the use of the "struggle" hashtag tends to be, in my experience, connected to the sadness generated from a lack of a nearby Trader Joe's or other esoteric conditions, I also understand that there are fellow West Virginians who do suffer from inequality, whether actual or perceived, which is unacceptable. My Chamber's stalwart commitment to the City of Huntington's Open To All campaign both prior and during my time with the Chamber is well known and a source of pride for me. Creating employment opportunities for everyone through economic development and entrepreneurism defeats hopelessness and poverty. As a straight white male, I recognize that my vantage point is not the best to discuss bigotry and exclusion, but it also does not mean that I cannot work to make our region more tolerant and inclusive.
In closing, allow me to share a lesson from my time in the Army. If you are going to criticize, don't forget to praise as well. As a young Army officer, I was told that if you write a counseling statement that criticizes a soldier, find two other soldiers to praise in writing. It is a rule that I continue to use, not only in professional life, but also personally. Beyond the shouts of the mob through social media, we need to take the time to lift up those who are working to make our state a better place. We do not have to agree with each other, but it would help if we would try to find ways to work together when we can.
Bill Bissett is president and chief executive officer of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce.