Judith C. Williamson: It’s not about the statue

You might not have any interest in our local statue controversy. It may seem just another Arcata antic, much ado about nothing, the people’s republic continued. On the other hand, if you do care (a lot) about it, that statue has come to stand for something quite beyond its historic intent.

Either way, one thing seems certain – this seemingly innocuous question, of whether or not to remove a public property, is not about McKinley, the person, or McKinley the President. It’s not even about history – after all, the story of the past changes, because understanding is an ongoing process. Facts are continuously reinterpreted, assumptions are upended, perspectives readjust. And conclusions, however rewritten, are never final.

Yes, tempers are flaring, accusations flying, pain surfacing in hateful, hurtful actions and words. But ...

It’s. Not. About. The. Statue.

Whether or not to remove McKinley from the Plaza is not the critical issue Arcata’s citizenry needs to address. The statue merely stands in the center of the Plaza; the battle at the heart of this city is alive, simmering in an increasingly heated social crucible.

Are we ideologically divided? Our differences are not that clear cut (a room full of liberals can still disagree about every issue). Are the haves against have nots? This is an indefatigably fairness-oriented community. Are we insensitive to the needs of those who are not like us? Our reputation swings quite deliberately the other way.

Yet anger abounds. Frustration has recently erupted over innumerable, highly sensitive issues, old and new. And in this, a most pernicious dynamic has arisen – between those who abjectly assume all responsibility for every perceived wrong, and those who react to perceived wrongs by bullying.

Not that long ago, anyone who wished to speak at a city council meeting could do so, without constraint of time. Aside from long-winded gadflies, it worked ... until it didn’t. As the general willingness to abide by standards of civility eroded, the council timorously applied timing rules, but the horse was pretty much out of the barn by then. Respect? Old school. An adversarial attitude has become the norm, as emboldened interest groups routinely pack council chambers, determined to apply pressure by any means.

Can order be restored? How does this community, with its legacy of soft-hearted, obliging acquiescence, reset itself and stand up to bully tactics?

Speculators can point to a host of probable sources for our community’s current state of heightened discord. As retro and rural and redwood curtain protected as we might imagine this place, Arcata is in a state of flux. Unavoidably, its character is changing. There are those who resist growth, and those who rush to define it. Most of us accept change and gradually adapt – but adaptation takes a variety of forms. And whatever forms it takes, conflicts are inevitable.

Establishing and enforcing reasonable, respectful rules of engagement (not the usual description of City Council discourse, but appropriate here) are key. Their observation sets the stage for opposing views to be aired and disparate voices to be heard. This is merely cooperation – which does not imply agreement.

Civility holds a very thin line. It may seem antiquated in this age of commentors, twitterers and scofflaw entitlement. Without it, we’re wild.

Former Arcata Eye columnist Judith C. Williamson is a resident of Arcata.


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