My Turn: Troubling trend toward uncivil discourse

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

At the Aug. 8 meeting of the Juneau Empire Citizens Advisory Board, our group of about 15 citizens received a verbal report on the status of efforts to move the capital. During this meeting, publisher Don Smith stated that he did not want the Empire to become a negative force in the threat of losing the capital. He did not want to send a message that might fuel the loss. The role of the advisory group, he said, is to serve as a sounding board.

A week later, a guest editorial blamed Juneau residents for losing support around the state for retaining the capital by being anti-business. That prompted a spate of letters to the editor, which is the more appropriate place for personal opinions, maligning progressive perspectives. The letters pages became a forum for attacking citizens who engage in the most basic of American rights: participating in public policy decisions that improve our quality of life. Respect for diversity and tolerance disappeared. Hard-working Assembly members were targeted and blamed.

As I read the next several editions of the paper and followed the uncivil discourse on pages four and five, I began to see a trend in the letters. There appeared to be an orchestrated campaign, timed for our local election, that could be titled Perception is Reality. It is instigated by a small group of people who are unwilling to accept that a majority of Juneauites voted for more progressive candidates in the last election; they also are disappointed that voters have made reasonable decisions on ballot issues.

The campaign seems designed to return the reins of power to a chosen few rather than a truly representational blend of citizens. The method has been to single out certain people and groups and paint them as scapegoats.

Unfortunately, I believe some of the Empire's editorials have fostered precisely what Mr. Smith wanted to avoid and have encouraged attacks on others. It has permitted meanness and persecution. And it has angered many readers.

I decided to hold my thoughts until the September meeting. Then the terrorist tragedies halted normal life for Americans and our monthly meeting was postponed. Now these words need to be expressed beyond our advisory group. Under the crush of emotion from the horrific events of Sept. 11 the country has united. Juneau needs to do the same. We need to resist efforts to single out certain groups and blame them for our local problems. We are a community holding strongly differing opinions, not wrong opinions. Let us express them in a more civil and respectful manner.

The nasty tone of our local capital move debate has made me question whether I should remain on the Empire's advisory board. I wholeheartedly support keeping the capital in Juneau. I do not, however, support our newspaper's editorial position. It does not represent Juneau's fair-minded populace. But I will continue to serve on the advisory board because diverse voices need to be heard.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," said President Lincoln during the Civil War. We should heed this wisdom and stand together if we expect to retain the capital. That does not mean rejecting diversity.

We need to reach out to our fellow residents throughout Southeast Alaska by supporting improved ferry service, for example, rather than demonizing those people who believe a road from Juneau would bleed the ferry system of essential revenue. We need to move ahead as a united community worthy of being a capital city while exhibiting tolerance and understanding of different perspectives. If we continue sniping at each other, this undercurrent will become an undertow and pull down all of us. We must project the perception and the reality that we are magnanimous enough to be the capital of our great State of Alaska.

Laurie Ferguson Craig has been a communitiy activist on environmental and recreation issues.

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