Seattle should ditch the nasty in its next election

A woman standing in a crowd

A woman points and shouts at Seattle City Council members during a town hall meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, May 2, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For Seattleites, election excitement won’t end soon: The Big Blue Bubble is about to plunge into the biggest battle for control of the city council in recent memory.

All seven district seats on the nine-member council are up for grabs next year. Candidates are already announcing, incumbents are already bailing. It could result in a major turnover.

There are any number of issues at stake, from homelessness and law enforcement to the business climate (Amazon!) to making strides on equity and climate change. Oh, and transportation, as we enter the “period of maximum constraint” tied to the Alaskan Way Viaduct coming down and the move of buses from the downtown tunnel to street traffic.

One major issue is — and should be — how we conduct ourselves. What will be the climate of discourse? I doubt the coming gridlock will improve the mood.

As I have written before, Seattle’s “niceness” was always a kind of myth. Seattle has seen violent strikes, riots, bombings, racial killings and more throughout the years. But the politics of recent times seems to have become generally nastier than it was in, say, the 1980s and ’90s. There was the ugly outpouring of misogyny over the council’s 2016 decision not to grant a proposed SoDo arena a street vacation, at the time a setback for basketball fans. There was Mike O’Brien getting ejected and manhandled at a party last May celebrating the opening of the Nordic Museum by associates of a grumpy Ballard shipyard owner, who later told me he was angry over O’Brien’s support for the gentrification of Ballard’s industrial and maritime district. This was shortly after an “explosive” Ballard town hall meeting in a church confronting council members over homelessness. This month a recently announced candidate for city council withdrew, citing what he saw as threats from the left over his association with the conservative Discovery Institute think tank. And there’s the ongoing abuse of independent journalist Erica Barnett, who has been mocked and stalked online over her reporting on homelessness, housing and NIMBY pushback.

It’s hard to gauge how much of this is a change in civic or national culture, or simply an ongoing trend amplified by technology: Every troll or critic can use the Twitter and social media bullhorn to spew invective. Our attachment to like-minded affinity groups has further entrenched us. It strikes me that it is neither a problem of the left nor right per se but of public anger that can be broadcast 24/7 at the touch of a screen from devices we carry with us everywhere. Abuse is just a tweet away (see Donald Trump).

One effect in a political monoculture is that Seattle is at risk of becoming a place where orthodoxies are publicly enforced and shame emphasized: I sometimes think we’ve reverted to Puritan roots, where the stocks and the dunking pool have made a comeback. Stray from Seattle consensus and you are not simply an outlier, but you can be cast as evil, an enabler, a collaborator with dark forces. On the other hand, some folks need to put their pitchforks away: Running the homeless out of town, for example, is no solution, nor humane to your fellow citizens.

Of the five Seattle City Council members seated on the upper level during a meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, two have already said they won't seek re-election: Rob Johnson, second from left, and Sally Bagshaw, second from the right. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Liberals — in the old sense of liberal — are open-minded, willing to let all sides have their say. It is a position not of moral softness, but of moral clarity, that prevents authoritarian behavior. It should also lead to better solutions, and governance. It is not empty centrism. It is tolerance and the willingness to have your ideas challenged in ways that allow for discussion, not the shutdown of discussion.

Conversation is something that needs to happen more. Safe conversation. Honest conversation. Something beyond sign-waving and demonizing and shoving.

The Evergreen State College has been trying to move past a crisis in listening that recently drew national attention. The college (and I am an Evergreen grad, as are more than one member of my family) has been trying to learn, and heal. My attention was drawn to a recent KNKX story about an Evergreen professor, Mike Paros, who is teaching a course called “Liberal Education in the College Bubble: Crossing the Political and Cultural Divide.”

The course teaches students how to talk with and learn from people they might fundamentally disagree with. This is what “liberal” in liberal arts is all about. On a campus that can be a hothouse of activism, how do you help broaden minds? Listening is a strengthening exercise, not a moral failure.

Paros’ course description begins with a quote from John Stuart Mill: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” 

This is not a lesson that comes naturally, especially not in an era when we are heavily entrenched against “the other.” Paros’ course assignments teach students how to reach out and listen. This is not indoctrination, it is teaching students how to connect and learn.

I would offer some advice of my own. We live in an era when we all need thicker skins, but also minds open to new information, data, ideas and difference.

After listening to the story about Paros’ class, I found myself wishing he could bring it to Seattle to prepare us for the coming political season. We could use a refresher course.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.