Discussion showed best and worst of democracy

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Mar 23, 2017

The discussion about the recent diversity resolution City Council passed in a divided vote revealed democracy at its best and democracy at its worst.

At its best, democracy promises equal protection for all. The slow growth of American democracy has seen what was originally a promise for a few increasingly expanded. The discussion about this resolution showed a strong community-wide commitment to eschewing harassment, bullying and violence — a commitment shared by those who opposed the ordinance as well as those who supported it. The discussion also offered powerful statements of acceptance, welcome and love for those who are often marginalized in our society.

At its worst, democracy is a winner-take-all system in which the majority outweighs and marginalizes the minority (vocal or otherwise). And there were unfortunate examples of majority dominance in the discussion and action about the diversity resolution.

At one point, a councilor expressed reservations about an item in the resolution, and one of the resolution’s originators responded that the resolution did not have to pass unanimously.

At another point, some speakers discouraged revisions to the resolution’s language by saying that the community had already circulated the resolution and agreed on its language. This statement was made during the resolution’s first public workshop.

The purpose of city workshops is not to present a fully-fledged resolution to the public or City Council and then persuade everyone that it should be passed. The purpose of a city workshop is to test the boundaries of proposed resolutions, to listen to the concerns of the entire community, and to incorporate those concerns into the final document.

While these were isolated incidents in an otherwise positive discussion and other people disagreed with each of these statements, it was disheartening to see that the final resolution was entirely unchanged from the pre-workshop draft.

This is disheartening for two reasons. One, the resolve did not pass unanimously because there was no discussion about how to resolve places in which there was a diversity of opinion. Two, there were suggestions for how to strengthen the resolve that were likewise omitted.

The resolution proclaimed that we are an open and diverse society, but when we limit a discussion about openness and diversity to opinions with which we agree, when we fail to seek unanimity because we already have a majority vote, we reinforce the ideological silos that create and perpetuate unequal societies.

We live in an increasingly partisan and political environment. Council’s decisions frequently evade such easy categorization because on a local level we literally face those with whom we disagree, and we must work to identify solutions that incorporate these diverse perspectives.

That’s not always possible in an ordinance. But it was possible with this resolution.

There was clear agreement from the community about a core ideal of respect for our neighbors and community members and a clear agreement that harassment, discrimination and violence against anyone in our community will be vigorously rejected.

Not a single speaker before council advocated violence, harassment, bullying or any acceptance of hostility to others. Some speakers spoke about places they disagreed with an aspect of the resolution — with many concerned that the language of the resolution might require adherence to political ideals (such as amnesty for illegal immigrants).

But there wasn’t a conversation about how to resolve such issues or concerns even though these concerns were clear. Was it because the minority wasn’t needed in order to pass the resolution?

Resolutions establish directions for government. They should drive council’s agenda. When they are not the result of a full community engagement, when the disagreements that exist in the community are voted away by a majority, those issues do not become magically resolved.

There’s a fear implicit in such conversations: if we start to discuss core beliefs that the community does not agree on, doesn’t someone have to compromise on those core beliefs? But if we do not have that discussion, if we only listen to the beliefs that we agree with, then we are not going to address the core issues that separate us or create an open society.

We have to listen to people who hold different opinions. And then we have to figure out how to act with them to make positive change.

I strongly support the vision presented in the resolution. But I cannot support the process by which it was adopted. If a diversity resolution is not unanimous, then it rings hollow, because its force will depend only upon our goodwill towards a specific belief.

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