COLUMN: Future depends on ability to have difficult dialogues with civility

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 | 4:30 p.m. CST

This is a somber day for me as I am saddened and sickened by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the six lives lost — including a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 — and several others wounded. This is a horrible tragedy.

I have been thinking a great deal about last couple of years since Barack Obama ran for office and was elected president. Our civic discourse has become full of hate, ignorance and, quite frankly, very unproductive language.

I was appalled at the comments posted on the Tribune website in response to the cotton ball event at the Black Culture Center and the news that the Board of Curators needs to be more diverse. These types of activities were not limited to Columbia — all over the U.S., the FBI and other groups who follow hate crimes reported a dangerous increase in such events.

I really panicked when people started packing heat at political rallies. That disturbed me greatly. At times, I felt as if the KKK was alive and well and I have prayed non-stop for President Obama, who has received many threats against his life. The health-care debate and the claims that its passage would kill old people and the constant haranguing that the president is not a citizen of the U.S. sickened me.

I worried when Sarah Palin's "bulls-eye" piece hit the news— and was fearful that someone not sound in mind might follow those marching orders to "target" politicians and others who disagreed with them.

Whether or not Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shooting is related to these vitriolic events over the past two years or not — we must change course.

I am concerned about the direction our country and communities are taking by blaming people who have the least; giving instead to those who have in abundance. Continuing to carry bias and stereotypes rooted in hate and ignorance into the 21st century is a recipe for disaster. It was something else to read recently that MU did not integrate its athletic department until 1958 and refused to compete with schools that had African-American players.

There is a culture that is alive and well in this country that continues to have difficulty accepting, dealing with and working with people of color, immigrants, the poor and those without the means to get access to health care and education. I suggest the DiversityWeb website and the newsletter Diversity & Democracy as a place for those who are concerned about our future. Our nation has some very serious and complex problems to address. All of us have a role in shaping the future of our communities.

As a nation of people, we need to learn to harness the human capital of the country's diverse residents to build the capacity to solve the challenges of our nation and world.

As people, we need to start educating ourselves about policy and issues with the same diligence as we do learning a new software application or video game.

Our future depends on our ability to be flexible, open and capable of having difficult dialogues with civility. We can not afford to leave any child or person behind no matter who or what they are. We all matter, even if we have a difference of opinion, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and financial status.

As Rep. Giffords is clinging to life, we should pray for her recovery, for the families who lost a loved one and for our leadership to pull together, work together and act like adults.

Politicians, members of our media and the community should look inward and consider that the words they speak can have consequences.

If you feel hate toward someone, a particular group, politician or opinion, etc., I urge you to look inward and ask, where do those feelings come from and why?

The challenge for 2011 and beyond is to seek partnership and collaboration in every part of our lives. To be effective we have to be willing to listen, learn and be honest with ourselves and seek honest and truthful answers — not all of which can be found in our 24-hour cable news cycle.

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp is a Columbia resident and community activist.

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Kevin Gamble January 12, 2011 | 1:15 a.m.

Very, very well said, Ms. Wilson-Kleekamp. The eliminationist rhetoric we've seen spiking over the last couple of years is a poisonous trend, long-simmering but now unproductively raised to the boiling point by self-serving demagogues.

Hatred of diversity and change is fruitless, and only in working together can the country progress. The anger and violent sentiments so prevalent on our airwaves and in so many public forums can come to no good.

(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne January 12, 2011 | 8:32 a.m.

As long as we have a government that initiates violence against non-violent people who pose no threat to others, we will have a violent society. Violent rhetoric among government officials doesn't hold a candle to actual violence perpetrated by government officials when it comes to influencing the public in general, especially the mentally unstable. Violence begets violence.

Fixing the rhetoric can't hurt, but the real problem is the real violence.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall January 12, 2011 | 8:58 a.m.

Excellent commentary. One group that is trying to spread the concept of civil discourse is the Coffee Party. It is somewhat misnamed, in that it seems to hint at a liberal "foil" to the Tea Party. However, that is not what the Coffee Party stands for. The Coffee Party is, at its core, an effort to bring together all parties for civil and reasoned discourse. From their mission statement:

"The Coffee Party provides a place where men and women of all ages, races, physical abilities, and orientations can come together for a respectful and honest exchange of ideas. We believe that by talking and learning together - we can take action to solve the problems facing our nation."

You can find more about the Coffee Party at And yes I am a member, but not in any major capacity; just someone who believes that we need to tone down the rhetoric and dial up sensibility and reasoned discussion. Those who disagree with me are not my enemy and have a right to their views. But through reasoned discussion, we can both learn from each other.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 12, 2011 | 9:06 a.m.

Mark Flakne wrote:

"As long as we have a government that initiates violence against non-violent people who pose no threat to others, we will have a violent society"

I don't know if we can equate the SWAT raid on the Whitworths to violence by those that might fear being raided, or anyone else. Actually, Whitworth might stand to receive a substantial settlement by simply letting the wheels turn - surely most people would rather have the money than a violent revenge.

One issue about angry rhetoric on the media is that there are so many media outlets now, and the Internet and satellite radio allows people to hear pretty much what they want to hear, and only that. The vast majority of radio programming is music and general interest. Someone has to seek out extreme programming to find it, and that is their freedom. I don;t think we can justify removing those programs without some very clear and non-partisan guidelines (which already exist to a large extent), and I'd hate to be the one to try to come up with more.

The so called "shock-jock" syndrome is basically rooted in ratings - advertising dollars. A lot of shows that feature a lot of emotional speech and controversy are highly rated. People want what they are saying, sometimes just for the shock value of it. There's always someone that will try to make easy money telling people what they want to hear, and that holds all across the political spectrum.

However, instances where people act out their beliefs violently are quite rare, especially compared to most of the rest of the world. The occurence of the rare nutjob isn't justification for imposing increasingly restrictive standards on speech.


(Report Comment)
Willism Wilson January 12, 2011 | 2:43 p.m.

Civil discussions have been replaced by LABELS. Your White, Black,liberal Conservative, unemployed,lazy, Gay, racist, the list doesn't stop and we invent new ones everyday.
Our kids call each other losers, zero's etc... We tell our kids that their teachers are stupid and don't know their jobs, instead of having a discussion with the teacher.

I like what Wilson-Kleekamp has to say, but she is my daughter so there goes my objectivity. As her dad we have not always agreed on things and I am not responsible for her writing skills. She has matured into a person who takes
great pride in communicating tough issues and does a great job of researching the facts and will listen to all matters. We do not need to impede speech but do our own research on matters and not depend on the news media. I make it my business not to get involved in a discussions that I only have emotional opinions and not facts. I'll simply say I'll get back with you later. The only place where it doesn't work is with my wife, she is a retired school teacher and wants answers or discussion. We have the
ability to discuss issues and work through our own pet issues if we are willing to listen and respect one another.

Go Chicago Bears! Be careful Seattle has nothing to lose

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