A Call for Civility

SOURCE: Bangor Daily News 1/17/11

Guest column
By Steve Wessler

As a nation we experienced collective trauma over last Saturday’s tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others, six of whom died. This awful attack, however, has sparked a national conversation about the importance of civility and empathy in our public debates.

This national focus on our personal responsibility for the words we use makes Gov. Paul LePage’s comments on Friday — comments about the NAACP and the celebration of the national holiday celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. — even more discordant than those comments would have been otherwise.

Even without his crude language directed at the NAACP, the governor’s remarks would be disturbing. His reference to the NAACP’s invitation to him to join in the celebration of Dr. King legacy as constituting “special interest” advocacy dishonors the country’s and Maine’s oldest and most influential organization in the struggle for racial justice. The history of the NAACP in many ways is the history of the civil rights movement in both America and Maine.

By suggesting that the celebration of Dr. King’s life and dreams is a “special interest” event, the governor dishonors both Dr. King’s life and work and the hundreds of thousands of Mainers who hold his memory in reverence. Monday was not a “special interest” event. It is a national day of reflection on the past and the future; it is a day when all of us, blacks, whites, Native Americans, Franco-Americans, Latinos, Asians, American born, immigrant and refugee, abled and differently-abled, male and female, straight and gay, join together in support of equality, fairness, civility and respect.

The words we use define who we are as a society. If we allow ourselves to lose our collective empathy for those whom society marginalizes and if we demonize and treat with disdain the people we disagree with, then we must be prepared accept the consequences.

I founded the Center for Preventing Hate over 11 years ago because I saw what those consequences were: the fracturing of communities, the isolation and fear of those who are targeted and the risk that degrading words will escalate to greater incivility, harassment, discrimination and, finally, violence. Everything I have seen in almost 20 years of work preventing bias, disrespect and violence leaves me with a clear understanding of the dangerous consequences of the language of degradation.

I have seen far too many instances when the unchallenged use of negative stereotypes and demeaning words has empowered individuals to move from words to more destructive conduct. In my years directing both the Civil Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s office and more recently the activities of the Center for Preventing Hate I have witnessed this process of escalation in schools and communities in Maine. I have seen it in Northern Ireland where the center has worked for the past five years.

I also have learned what it takes to reverse this process of escalation. I have seen the courage of children and adults in Maine who speak up to challenge and condemn the language of incivility and divisiveness. When we remain silent in the face of intemperate and incendiary words we unintentionally become part of that process of escalation. When we give voice, individually and collectively, to the value of respect we create the kind of communities that the vast majority of us want.

We expect our leaders to act with dignity. But, if they humiliate individuals and isolate groups that have long been targeted with bias, discrimination and violence, than we need to speak up. The center works in schools across Maine to provide students with the skills to engage in vigorous but respectful dialogue on the most controversial issues facing our society.

What is remarkable is that students can do what too many of our leaders, far older, more experienced and supposedly wiser, cannot accomplish. Those of us who want to hear and see why empathy and civility are of such critical importance should spend more time in our schools talking to young Mainers who have the courage to speak up for both.

I have sent an invitation on behalf of the center to Gov. LePage to join us in a conversation with Maine students: students who differ from each other in race, class, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political views but who share a passionate commitment to creating a state in which civility prevails over degradation and every single resident feels safe, valued and respected. These boy and girls and young men and women are Maine’s future leaders. Their example should make all of us both proud of and optimistic for the future of our state.

Steve Wessler is executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate and is a former director of the Civil Rights Unit in the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

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