Empire editorial: A community divided

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

The election generated a lot of talk about division in the community. Since our editorial page serves as a high profile waypoint for airing out public opinion and commentary, some have pointed the accusatory finger at the newspaper. A couple of letter writers have even gone so far as to blame the newspaper and its publisher for creating the division.

The notion that Juneau Empire editorials or letters to the editor are responsible for broadening the divide is a bit presumptuous. But let's move past the "shoot the messenger" mentality of those who don't like the message and examine what is at the core of our discord.

It is human nature to seek balance, harmony and order in our world. It is also human nature to press for acceptance of our own reasoning, beliefs and ideals and challenge those who disagree with us. This latter point can be taken as destructive or constructive. It all depends upon which side of a particular issue one falls.

Juneau is a vibrant community, full of articulate, passionate, active people representing the entire spectrum of beliefs and values. It is safe to say those who choose to engage in public discourse tend to be more passionate and strident in their views, while the majority of us quietly go about our lives, choosing for whatever reason not to participate.

Juneau as a community has demonstrated over the years that there are some issues that always have resisted consensus. The community also has proven that it can be solidly united. The events of Sept. 11 brought us together in our grief and our willingness to reach out and help.

Whenever the capital movers raised their flag, Junueauites put aside their differences and dutifully worked together to fend off the challenge. This time around the threat is greater and we have a wider disparity of ideas on how to accomplish the goal.

Lately we have seen a barrage of letters, some for and against war, for and against the road, some pitting the government sector against the business community, letters taking the opposing views of growth and development vs. environmental constraint as well as the predictable raft of politically charged letters.

All of the Assembly candidates campaigned on the pledge to unite community. The promise to bring the community together was also a central theme in the election a year ago.

We can accept that there will be certain things Juneau can unite behind. In a broader sense, we must also accept and appreciate the rich diversity that exists in our community. If we are to be "united" as a community, we may want to look at this ideal in the same context as we view our nation as a union of vastly different states. Our local political and philosophical subdivisions are strong, but that doesn't mean we can't build consensus in a constructive way.

The topic of the community divide was discussed at this week's Citizens Editorial Advisory Board meeting. One board member remarked that our board is a good microcosm of the community and represents a rich diversity of opinion. As such, the joining of these varied personalities produced a broad range of ideas in a very civilized and orderly discussion.

One board member stated that the Empire was fanning the flames and fostering the division in our community, adding that the mentality seems to be "if you are not 100 percent with us, you are against us." Another member said that the exchange in the newspaper was not divisive at all, but that the wide range of views and feelings aired in the newspaper was a healthy and constructive way to gauge what people are thinking, and weigh the pros and cons of an issue.

Another member stated that the strong opinions presented by letter writers are helpful to the silent majority, giving them a better understanding of the issues, which will aid them in forming their own opinions.

The discussion arrived at the consensus that the Empire should encourage letter writers to elevate the quality of the exchange in the newspaper.

We consider ourselves fortunate to publish a newspaper in a community that is so alive with ideas and energy. We urge all who write letters to the editor to strive for civility by taking time to think before you write, be concise, reason through the points to be made in support of your view, and avoid the use of personal jabs to drive a point as this tends to degrade the value of the message. This is also good advice for yours truly.

This does not mean, however, that public figures are immune from scrutiny and won't be held accountable for their actions. "A free press is the essential protagonist in the never-ending battle to protect free speech, free thought and freedom to live." Kurt Wimmer, lawyer, 2000.

Don Smith



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