An Unbelievable Water Mess: Adult Meanness Abounds

An Unbelievable Water Mess: Adult Meanness Abounds

Karen Gross 12/06/2024
An Unbelievable Water Mess: Adult Meanness Abounds

The story I am about to share stands in sharp contrast to the Kindness Rocks shown above.

In fact, the story is so bizarre and so unbelievable that one could not make it up. And, to be very clear here: this story has been widely reported and is supported by video evidence. At one level, it is not about politics; at another level (as will be explained), it is all about politics. But, the impact extends far beyond the surface telling of the events, as will become evident.

Some Context

I have spent the last several months, talking and writing and thinking and teaching about meanness and the antidotes to it. Some of these pieces have appeared here on Medium. Consider this example:

I write about experiences I have had personally. I also write about experiences shared with me (including through the Virtual Teachers Lounge). I write about incidents appearing in the media. There is no shortage of meanness. That is exemplified by the preliminary results of a survey of educators we are conducting.

My focus has largely been on meanness in the context of education: meanness between students; meanness between students and teachers/professors (running both ways); meanness between teachers. That said, I have also written about organizational meanness. Wherever meanness occurs, it impacts culture — institutional culture. It makes it hard for people to thrive. I have written about mistaken priorities too; meanness suggests that time is spent in the wrong way. And, unlike bullying, meanness can be targeted at many people, not necessarily at the same person (although it can be).

One more point: being mean is unhealthy in every sense. It hurts the target of the meanness. It also takes energy from and damages the health of the perpetrator of the meanness. It isn’t how we should be treating others on a day-to-day basis. It violates moral and ethical codes. If you are religious, it violates religious norms. And meanness can be words or actions or inactions or some combination thereof. And, there is little if any excuse for the vast majority of meanness; it goes unchecked and creates a world which is hard to inhabit.

Meanness is bad. Full stop.

The Water Incidents

As I describe this incident, remember please that I am not making it up. Here’s how it begins. There are two (among other) elected officials who represent Bennington County, Vermont. One is a Republican (Mary Morrissey) and the other is a Democrat (Jim Carroll). Both are well known. I know both personally, having lived in Bennington for 8 plus years as a college president. Both has extensive records of public service to Bennington and the State of Vermont.

It has now been established and supported by video that Representative Morrissey repeatedly poured water into the carry bag that Representative Carroll used and hung from a hook in the VT State House. (Had it been a single incident, that might call for a different approach.) The water dumping has occurred over an extended period of time and Representative Carroll was concerned that someone was targeting him. (He has had his own personal turmoil, which was well publicized but by all accounts (mine included), he is a remarkable man with a big heart and a willingness to stand up for the little guy. I saw it in action. For sure. For real.

Apparently, his complaints went nowhere as he had no evidence. So, he bought a small camera and placed it near his bag and lo and behold, there is Representative Mary Morrissey (she’s hard to miss for reasons not worth sharing here) pouring water into her fellow representative’s carrying bag. I kid you not. In fact, in one video segment, she appears to look to make sure no one is looking at her. She obviously did not know she was being videotaped. The video shows her on different days in different outfits.

Here’s a link to the videos. I share them for four primary reasons: (1) it is hard to believe what I am writing without seeing it oneself; (2) it is symbolic of larger scale meanness that abounds; (3) it opens the door to conversations about how to ameliorate meanness; and (4) the incident is so childish and so immature and bizarre that it allows me to compare it to events in schools done by kids ….again, this event was not done by a kid but by an adult, an elected official in whom we supposedly have trust.

So, the House of Representatives is conducting an ethics investigation. It almost seems beyond belief. Apparently, those investigations are not public. Representative Morrissey says she has apologized to Representative Carroll. She asserts she cannot figure out why she did these “pouring acts” as she says it is out of character for her to do such bad deeds.

Now, I get that this is not a massive water fraud. It is not about polluting water with chemicals. It is not about flooding, a recent and growing concern. It is not about a water plant that fails to add the right chemical to provide clean water to save money.

Nope. It is a series of acts that an adult perpetrated on another adult.

Here’s my question: If a child did this to another child, how would we handle this? We would (should), if we were sensitive and trauma responsive, ask the offending child why he/she/they did the pouring? What precipitated it? Was something troubling him/she/them? Behavior is, after all, the language of trauma. We would work with the child to help them know right from wrong and that if the pouring was meant as a joke, it wasn’t funny. And, we would institute a restorative justice approach (as opposed to punishment such as detention or dismissal from school) that would entail the offender and the person offended meeting together with a third party and setting out how each of them felt and the appropriate way to remediate the situation. That might involve a public apology. It might entail delivering water in GLASSES to seniors at a senior center; it might entail creating a new carrying bag for the child offended. Parents would be involved as would teachers and the school social work and psychologist, in addition to the principal. The solution is NOT to pour water on the offender, however tempting.

Now a second, related question: What if the incident involved a college student pouring water into the backpack of another student repeatedly? Again, I think there would (or should) be a restorative justice approach, involving some get together similar to that just described. And, we know that the judgment part of the brain does not mature fully until one is 27 or thereabouts. We get that college students sometimes do things they later regret. If there was evidence of sexual harassment, ethnic or racial targeting or bullying, that would ramp up the response by the institution and the appropriate form of resolution.

The Third Question

My third related question is: What if the incident involved an adult serving as a state representative who repeatedly poured water into the carrying bag of a fellow representative? Not once. Many times it appears.

As I pose this question, I have an easier time dealing with students of whatever age and stage who misbehave and are mean than a grown woman with years of experience acting in a way that can only be characterized as unconscionable by any and every standard.

To return to the third question: we could ask the “why” question. We could speculate as to the “why’s?” Was there political motivation? Was it a sign of the displeasure the offender felt as a result of the offended person’s personal demons? Was the aim humiliation? Was it occurring due to mental illness or abundant use of alcohol or drugs of the offender? Was there some hidden animus between these two representatives from the same district and was this a form of retaliation? Perhaps the offender is just plain mean. One news source suggested the Morrissey was trying to make Carroll think he had gone crazy. Yipes is all I can say to all of this.

I am sure there are other possible “why’s.”

Now, we don’t know the answer to the “why” question. The above is pure speculation. Indeed, the offender shared that she does not know why. Personally, I can’t think of a “why” that would justify the action, except perhaps mental illness or substance abuse and in that case, the offender needs a leave of absence and therapy immediately Every other reason would require adults with a conflict at work to converse, to iron out their differences, to behave like adults, not adolescents. To be civil and decent and even kind.

Perhaps as a society, we are more accepting of meanness, given that we see it everywhere, including among politicians. But come on: pouring water repeatedly? This isn’t meanness meant to be shared as the offender ostensibly thought she would not be caught pouring red-handed. Maybe we have regressed into believing that those with power can do as they please to others (of their station or below it).

For me, none of these suggestions explain adult water pouring. For me, the water pouring is symbolic of growing unjustified meanness in our culture. That is sad and worrisome. And, it means it cannot go unaddressed.

I wrote a letter to be published (I hope) in the Bennington Banner tomorrow but that is not enough. I need to do more. I need to make sure we see that the behavior of politicians (Mary Morrissey among them) is called out and challenged when it is considered aberrant.

This behavior is, for me, also a clarion call for action: calling people out for behavior that is simply unacceptable in a moral society. We can’t (well, we can but we shouldn’t) just walk away and say: how odd, how bizarre, how unprofessional, how sad, how mean the actions were. Instead, we need to use our voices and power to say that this behavior isn’t how mature adults behave. For real. For sure. For now. For the future.

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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