(Community Matters) “Not enough people spoke out. It was a tough time, some folks were scared. Some folks were just busy. Some were indifferent. And because not enough spoke out, the line between right and wrong started blurring and shifting until a critical mass of people had crossed over. And then it was too late.” – Mayor Steve Adler at yesterday’s ADL Jurisprudence Breakfast
Mayor Adler’s comments seem especially well timed:
It’s great to be with you today, to join in honoring —— and in celebrating the mission of the Anti-Defamation League.
We do that, today, by honoring leaders who exemplify the courage and compassion that help keep democracy healthy in good times and in tough times.
Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court,
Catherine Q. Morse, General Counsel for Samsung Austin Semiconductor.
The ADL all about preserving democracy as well. And it does this by securing just and fair treatment for not only the Jewish people but, by its stated mission first written 100 years ago, to secure just and fair treatment for all people.
Hopefully, you know about the ADL’s work in tough times and tough situations. Because here, the ADL’s work is critical.
We hear too many stories these days about violent extremists, violent attacks on people because of their race or their faith. These stories are hard to hear, and we’re eager to ignore them and forget them and think about something else.
But, of course, violence can’t happen without this ignoring and forgetting, because before the guns and the bombs and the terror, there are thoughts and words.
In Germany after World War I. Most people were decent and reasonable. Only a few extremists had crossed over the line, only a few outspoken people were demonizing others and talking seriously about “final solutions.”
But other people were close to the line, and with each passing day — as the economy got tougher and people became more fearful and talk of a “final solution” persisted — some of them crossed the line.
And you know what? Not enough people spoke out. It was a tough time, some folks were scared. Some folks were just busy. Some were indifferent. And because not enough spoke out, the line between right and wrong started blurring and shifting until a critical mass of people had crossed over. And then it was too late.
At times like this it’s hard to speak up, hard to be a lone voice.
Just think about the last time you heard a racist joke or a slur against a group of people. What did you do? You’re around friends or acquaintances, it’s awkward or uncomfortable, it’s so much easier just to let the moment pass. And so often we do.
But that’s why the ADL is so important. They stand up to prejudice, call out hatred and hold us accountable for the tolerance that prevents violence and the respect that nourishes democracy. And they do it daily, even when it’s awkward. Even when the transgression is small. Especially when the transgression is small.
Make no mistake; we see too much real evil in the world, real threats to our freedom and safety. Many have become big; sometimes the threats begin small. But we can only stand up to them if we can resist the fearful and lazy habit of demonizing people just because they’re different. That’s why the ADL is so important and why Diane and I support it.
But that reactive and curative role is not enough. We have to do more than just fight unjust discrimination. We’ve got to affirmatively build RESPECT. We must work harder to actively include those who are left out, to bring more people to the table. We’ve got to clear a path for real justice.
We’re talking a lot about inclusion in Austin these days. We’ve just inaugurated a new city government, a new city council with district representation, one member from each of ten districts — a huge change from the old days (meaning just last December) when all the Council members lived just north of the river and south of 45th Street.
A lot of people say it can’t work, that such a diverse group of people won’t be able to agree on anything, that we’ll wind up with gridlock and ward politics, that artists and families and longtime residents will continue to be priced out of the city and traffic congestion will get unimaginably worse as our environment deteriorates — that Austin will simply lose its soul.
But some of us see in this diverse group of new leaders the only way to make real progress. Because it’s only by passing ideas through this furnace that we’re going to forge the solutions, the really durable solutions people can get behind.
We just lost a transportation bond election. I wonder if a contributing factor was that all parts of the community were not on our governing boards.
We’ve got to host more inclusive conversations. Until we do that, our problems will be bigger than our ideas. Worse, we’ll come to see each other as the problem.
Which is not to suggest that any of this is easy. I’m sure you can imagine. Ten people from different perspectives, different parts of town, different assumptions and opinions, talking about pressing matters of justice and quality of life and economic opportunity — and how to pay for it all.
There is no ready majority on our new Council. To reach a majority vote on any issue will require new coalitions across lines not often crossed.
This will put to a test the innocent comfort of lazy generalizations — the understandable tendency to see things from your own front porch, to default to conversations you’ve rehearsed. What you’d expect.
But here’s what you might not expect. We decided we needed to learn together about Austin’s challenges and opportunities. We set up these policy forums, meetings where we read and hear from experts and discuss issues without any decisions on the table. We have conversations. We learn about each other — where we come from, the strengths and challenges facing our constituents. These sessions are extremely popular with the Council and now with the wider community.
We’re practicing with each other, listening and understanding. We’re building trust. Sometimes, we’re discovering the shades of gray where inspiration hides. We’re practicing connectedness, inclusion, so that when the divisive conversations come — and, of course, they’re coming — we’ll be ready. We’ll be stronger.
We are trying to move from tolerance to respect. To not only recognize differences, but to actively seek to find value in those differences.
The ADL’s work protects minorities. Without this conscience, as we’ve seen, democracy can degenerate; free people can lose their humanity. In pursuing this mission, the ADL’s spirit challenges us to build beyond tolerance, to extend ourselves to include those who are different, because that’s where we’ll find new insights and that is the work of justice.
Underneath our cultural skirmishes, underneath our fear and fascination with each other, is something deeper and more reliable. We need each other — and when things get tough, we need each other even more. We’re better, stronger, smarter, more powerful together.
The work of the ADL, the example of these leaders we’re honoring today, is not just a matter of conscience. It’s a reliable source of inspiration for the value we’re trying to create in our economy, our government and our communities. It’s the conversation that will truly sustain us.