Guest Opinion: On being a truly inclusive community

  • Wednesday, October 18, 2017 1:30am
  • Opinion

What does it mean to be an “inclusive” community? Is being “inclusive” even possible in a fractious age when we seem all too willing to make sharp, impenetrable distinctions between “us” and “them?” Is a belief in being an open, welcoming community enough?

How can we be civil and tolerant when confronting fear-induced prejudice, bigotry, hatred? Is it possible to truly understand a perspective, a set of beliefs, an attitude, a behavior, a set of experiences, that is not our own?

What does “understanding” entail?

In the most basic sense, an inclusive community is one that includes people of all kinds and is nondiscriminatory when it comes to who is part of the community. One of the core beliefs most people in Sequim seem to share is that we are an inclusive community — that we, as a community, are welcoming and friendly to all. Indeed, for many of us that is one of the key things that drew us here and one of the things we say we love most dearly about Sequim.

Is our community somehow immune from the rancor and divisiveness that has infected our national discourse? Have we managed to avoid or overcome the fears that prompt us to separate and segregate ourselves into discrete homogeneous groups and walling ourselves off from those who are not like us — the “them” who look different, who don’t share a common background of life experience, or who espouse beliefs we view as threatening?

If the answer to these questions were yes, we would indeed be an exceptional community. We’d be a model of genuine civility in a time when the very idea of treating others—especially those not like us—with respect and understanding is being questioned by some as a weakness, as moral compromise, as a threat to “our” culture, “our” society, “our” nation, or “our” civilization.

And yet, acknowledging that we, as a community (and as the individuals who constitute that community) have no such immunity, that we, too, harbor fears, that we, like most, still separate and segregate ourselves in perhaps more ways than we unite, is not a condemnation.

Nor is it a reason to give in or give up, to despair, to see nothing but futility in striving for genuine civility, to aspire to be exceptional. On the contrary, it is an essential first step toward the goal of being a truly inclusive community.

Civility and civil discourse do not come easy to those whose views, experiences, behavior, life choices, are widely divergent or completely at odds. The natural (some would say innate) human tendency is to fear the unknown—to fear that which we do not understand. And fear can short-circuit the ability or the will to seek that understanding.

A community intent on being inclusive, however, seeks that understanding despite the difficulty, regardless of the fear. It does so knowing, too, that understanding something is not the same as excusing it, condoning it, accepting it.

The obverse is true as well: a community that condemns, punishes, or rejects something without understanding it is doing so without knowing whether such attitudes or actions are legitimate, reasonable, or justifiable, and it can’t, then, know how to assess its own concerns or fears.

It has been months since I wrote on civility and community, in large part because I, too, was struggling against a feeling of despair as, across the nation, divisiveness and rancor metastasized into hatred, violence, death and a seemingly accelerating downward spiral into chaos.

What made it worse was that some seemed to welcome, to embrace, that process and the chaos, seeing it as a necessary unavoidable “cleansing” — a prerequisite to the creation of a different political, economic, cultural or social order.

Despair always paves the way for fear. I began to wonder whether civility and civil discourse were possible any longer and, if so, what they meant when trying to understand or address violence.

Then, in one of life’s odd, wonderful coincidences, I came across the following in the author’s note at the end of a crime novel. In “Glass Houses,” one of her Inspector Gamache mystery series set in Quebec, Louise Penny explains that the fictional little village of Three Pines, while an important part of the setting and the plot, doesn’t exist physically, but is “real” in far more important powerful ways:

“Three Pines is a state of mind. When we choose tolerance over hate. Kindness over cruelty. Goodness over bullying. When we choose to be hopeful, not cynical. Then we live in Three Pines.” (emphasis mine)

I believe each of us, and many more of our fellow citizens in this very real little village out on the Olympic Peninsula, “lives in Three Pines.”

I think the very notion of civility and what we mean when we talk about our desire for a more inclusive community is that the “Three Pines state of mind” should be the broad-based norm of how we see each other, how we treat each other, how we solve our problems, and celebrate our community.

Civility and “inclusiveness” based on tolerance, kindness, and goodness, and driven by hope are really inseparable ideas.

As a community, as a culture, as a nation, we have so much in common, we have so much to celebrate, and we have so many things that can help us navigate the long, tortuous, and often frightening path we have still to travel to where civility and inclusiveness are the ties that bind, where they are the fortress whose walls cannot be breached by the forces of fear, hate, cruelty, bullying, cynicism.

Let’s have a community conversation about that.

Ken Stringer is a Sequim resident, a retired analyst and a business consultant who has worked on a wide range of public and private sector issues locally, nationally and internationally.

CommunityPlus is a group of local residents who aim to “foster civility, civil discourse and civic engagement for the love of Sequim.”

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