Sunday, November 19, 2017
News Roundup

Hooper: Empathy should be the response to bigotry

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Temple Terrace City Manager Charles W. Stephenson said Tuesday at a City Council meeting that it's unfortunate a bigot-laced anonymous letter regarding council candidate Wael Odeh has received so much attention.

I couldn't disagree more. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."

Someone decided to target the candidacy of Odeh, a Muslim, with a typed letter distributed in residential mailboxes that smeared him for his beliefs and heritage. It brought to light, again, the Islamophobia the Muslim community deals with on a regular basis.

The letter and the council's attempts to craft a meaningful response have inadvertently fueled a needed dialogue about acceptance, tolerance, inclusion and all the other topics some want to label as unnecessary political correctness.

The letter itself may be "cowardly," as council member Robert Boss said, but the city's reaction represents an opportunity to be courageous.

With four of the five council members present at a meeting Tuesday night, the council deadlocked on a resolution that would have signaled solidarity with Temple Terrace's significant Muslim population.

The original resolution would have recognized Muslims as an integral part of both the United States and the local community in the city.

A modified version Stephenson offered stated, "the city takes great pride in supporting individual religious freedoms and is strengthened by the many varied cultural traditions of its diverse populations."

From my vantage point, I don't know why the resolution couldn't state both. It's obvious the city doesn't want to risk the appearance of favoring one faith over another, but at the same time it can specifically recognize Muslims, given the strong connection that segment has with Temple Terrace.

Of course, a resolution need not be the only step. The city can explore other ways to send a signal of unity and respect to the community. Events and opportunities can be devoted to fostering a greater understanding of cultural and religious differences among all groups.

Unfamiliarity, dare I say ignorance, about different groups often spurs that kind of hatred found in such a letter. An ongoing effort to embrace the community and promote togetherness can send a message more powerful than an anonymous letter.

And really, isn't that what any victim of bigotry, racism or misogyny seeks — the sense that they aren't alone in their struggle. While it might be nice to sway those who long to divide us with hate bombs and fear mongering, we really need leaders to set a tone of empathy, to let those victims know they're part of the community.

It's the bigot who needs to feel isolated.

More than anything, leaders need to lead, and that means taking a clear and resolute stand against adverse actions that can taint an entire community. The rejection must be specific, consistent and constant.

The next City Council meeting won't take place until after the election, and the new board will face a number of critical issues.

But I hope the two new council members and the rest of the council will embrace the opportunity to make Temple Terrace truly whole. Actions and energy directed toward inclusion are needed here and across the nation, now more than ever.

That's all I'm saying.

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