Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

“Face to Face: Portraits from the Precipice” by Bill McLaughlin will be on exhibit at the Earlville Opera House art gallery, Earlville, NY, from May 6 through June 24.

Editor’s note: Five additional portraits are below McLaughlin’s essay.


Many years ago while working on environmental issues and getting quite angry at the political and corporate entities that were contaminating the air and groundwater in the rural area where I was living, an experienced activist and dear friend gave me some advice that I knew was correct but with which I still struggle. 

She said something to this effect: We can hate what they do. We can hate the harm they cause and the decisions they make, we can hate their disregard for life and living systems, hate the toxic destruction they inflict — but we cannot hate them. They are human beings with the same flaws and faults but also containing the same wonder and potential. And just like us, they deserve respect and love. If we lose sight of that, then we have lost everything. 

We are all on a continuum and constantly evolving. The person we despise today because of their political views may someday become a catalyst for positive change. We know so little of each other’s motivations and influences.

As Miller Williams wrote in his poem, “Compassion” —

You do not know what wars are going on

down there where the spirit meets the bone

The precipice in the title of this project refers not only to where we stand today as a nation, but also to my own personal precipice. I confess to being outraged at the rise of Fascism, White Nationalism, Anti-immigration, Antisemitism, Anti-LGBTQ etc. and the heartbreaking increase of hate-fueled violence to which we are now in danger of becoming inured.

I’m disgusted by the assumptions and attitudes that inspire these ideologies. I despair that so many people are so easily manipulated and susceptible to incitement. So I find myself on the edge of the precipice, held back from the abyss by a thin thread from the past and those wise words of my activist friend. 

As always, it’s so much easier to hate a faceless group of people. We know from history that when we demonize others, we allow ourselves to be more easily manipulated, more readily bent toward hatred, violence and for some, atrocities. It has happened throughout history. It is happening today and it demands from us a serious, conscientious effort to overcome, to transcend.

Let me be clear: tolerance does not mean capitulation. But if we can neutralize the hate and avert the violence then perhaps we can prevail on that elusive “battlefield of ideas” where we can continue to advocate for universal inclusion.

You must fight others, but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.” — Malala Yousafzai

So our challenge as we view these portraits is to find ourselves in each of these faces, and in so doing, discover our own humanity there and hopefully, our particular path back from the precipice.

About the Project

“Face to Face: Portraits from the Precipice” seeks to explore and acknowledge the diversity and richness of our Upstate New York community through portraiture. It is also a subtle reminder that as the voices of hatred and intolerance seek to divide us, that as a community, we share much more that unites us than separates us. 

More than 70 portraits were made at public events including county fairs, concerts and festivals over the last year throughout the rural areas of the Southern Tier. Several of the portraits were made more formally in private. Mostly, these portraits represent a random sampling of people I met who agreed to participate in the project.

As the forces that seek to divide us racially, politically and economically intensify, it is my hope that this project will help to foster tolerance rather than division; understanding rather than exclusion.

Selected portraits will be on exhibit at the Earlville Opera House art gallery, Earlville, NY, from May 6 through June 24. An opening reception is 1 to 3 p.m. May 6.

Bill McLaughlin

Bill McLaughlin is a painter and photographer who lives in New Berlin, New York. His work was featured in Sense of Decency in February 2021 with a review of “Living in Limbo: Portraits from the Border,” photos of migrants and asylum seekers Bill met in Tijuana, Mexico, in December 2019.

3 thoughts on “Tales from the Precipice

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    Today seems appropriate timing for Bill McLaughlin’s essay and a half-dozen of his beautiful portraits. “The precipice in the title of this project refers not only to where we stand today as a nation, but also to my own personal precipice,” Bill writes


  2. migabel says:

    Beautiful photos and essay, Bill. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Can’t wait to see your exhibit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John Mariani says:

    Thanks for reminding us of something essential. It’s so easy — and so dangerous — to make our divisions personal.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: