So once again Kauai has the reputation of being out of control, over the top, hot-headed, as yet another series of meetings — the proposed expansion of the humpback whale sanctuary, — is marked by contentiousness and rancor.
Only this time, one of the facilitators also mixed it up, with sanctuary superintendent Malia Chow getting into a heated exchange with westside fisherman Greg Holzman before the first meeting, which was held in Kilauea.
Malia, who admits she lost control of her emotions, probably shouldn't have continued to lead the meetings after they got off to such a rocky start. And though Mitchell Alapa later apologized for his profanity-laced diatribe at the same meeting, it set a certain tenor of incivility that is hard to erase.
Ugly outbursts, frequently fueled by alcohol, are nothing new at Kauai meetings. But it seems that folks can't get together to talk about anything controversial anymore without the meeting turning into a giant hissy fit.
Things really began to take a turn for the worse at meetings on the proposed Public Land Development Corp., with Councilman Gary Hooser encouraging the jackboot mentality through his January 2013 “million little fists” call to action:
A million little fists waving in unison can have a huge impact. Keep it waving. When you get tired of waving, pound it against governments [sic] door. Pound it in the face of corporate greed and abuse.
So he and his “fistees” waved and pounded and bullied their way through the hearings on anti-GMO Bill 2491, shut down a meeting on the horizontal drilling well before anyone got a chance to speak and have continued to foster a climate of shouting down and intimidation that now seems to characterize any attempts at public discourse on the island.
Yeah, people are frustrated and fed up, often with cause, but waving fists is not a good strategy, unless your a toddler throwing a tantrum. When meetings are continually characterized by acrimony andconflict, to the point where some folks are afraid to participate and the presenters end up feeling abused, well, then we've lost an important component of democracy.
Of course, this trend isn't unique to Kauai. Just this past weekend I was talking to a friend who lives in a small Massachusetts town that is now bitterly divided over a proposal to build a new library. When her husband started a group dedicated to civil communication, which included talking to proponents and opponents, he was branded as a sell-out, an enemy, a defector to the other side.
Since when is open communication an evil act, compromise a dirty word? Since when has "shill" defined a person who can see another point of view?
The problem is exacerbated in that Massachusetts town, and on Kauai, because of the smallness of the communities. On Kauai, it's compounded by the presence of so many perceived “others” — the seed companies, haoles, newcomers, PMRF, tourists, the federal government, even locals — all of which are blamed by somebody for destroying the place.
And when someone is dehumanized, or demonized as the "other," it's pretty easy to treat them with disdain, disrespect and disregard.
An article in The Garden Island today that outlines the petty beef between Chow and Holzman reports:
Anne Walton, the sanctuary’s program analyst, said the anger that dominated the public hearings is par for the course on Kauai — although not on the other islands — when any major change is proposed.
“I think people think that’s how you get heard,” Walton said. “The loudest and the most angry get heard, but there are many other voices and points of view that get lost.”
Anne has it right. People do think that's how they get heard. But in reality, the loud angry voices just turn people off — especially decision-makers.
So how do we change this trend? My friend, who lived on Kauai in the 1990s, recalled training environmentalists and others in meeting facilitation and mediation, with the intent of making them more effective at getting their voices heard.
A lot of those folks have gotten older, stepped out of the public arena, turned their attention to other things. Perhaps it's time to train a new group of young people in ways to rein in their out-of-control friends and neighbors when they start going off at public meetings.
Still when we talked about the ugliness that divided my community over GMOs, and her community over a library, neither of us felt very hopeful about the process of mending fences, building bridges or even striking an uneasy peace.
As she observed, and I tend to agree, “You don't come back from something like that. The damage has been done.”
Or to borrow a phrase coined by blogger Joni Kamiya-Rose, “the bleeding of aloha” continues unabated.