Hawaii is a small, fragile place. It needs protection from large-scale, poorly planned, mainland-style development.  That’s why it is critically important for Hawaii to have a smart, pro-active environmental movement.

Unfortunately, some elements in the environmental camp – or at least some of their followers – seem to have lost their bearings.  In particular, certain groups and individuals in Maui County seem to have allowed their fear and zeal to overwhelm their judgment. As a consequence, they risk alienating the very audience they should be trying to reach.

Political activism requires an open political system, where everyone’s right to participate is respected. Respect for everyone is in fact a traditional Hawaiian and local practice. Respect given and demanded, for example, was the key to Senator Inouye’s illustrious career. Showing respect was also the key to Governor Ige’s remarkable upset victory of last year. You won’t get anywhere in Hawaii politics by slandering, smearing or demonizing your opponents. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to show that you respect everyone, not just those who agree with you.

Babes Against Biotech Facebook screen shot

A screen shot from the Babes Against Biotech Facebook page, Feb. 13.

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This is why Babes Against Biotech and some other Maui County groups risk undermining their own environmental cause.  Most working and middle class voters are not experts on toxics, soil science, or human health risks. These voters therefore have to consider who is making claims and demanding changes. Anyone who steps into the public arena should expect to be judged not just on the content of their message, but also on the way they personally behave. It’s the only insight the rest of us have into their character; it’s our only clue about whether they can be trusted.

The recent attack by letter and article on one of the applicants for Mele Carroll’s House seat, as reported in Civil Beat, is hardly the worst breach of public decorum by anti-Monsanto zealots, but it is sadly symptomatic. Here is someone who is not a public official, who is only being interviewed for a short list, who has no opportunity to respond, and who still has every private citizen’s right to sue for slander. And yet this person was publicly tarred as a “Monsanto plant,” accused without evidence of carrying out a secret agenda for a seed corn company.

Some may think rules are for sissies, or that the ends justify the means. Others, following in the footsteps of a recent President, may think it’s essential to identify the “evildoers,” no matter what the cost. In politics, however, contempt for due process can lead, over time, to a very slippery slope.

No doubt most Maui County environmentalists are too young to remember the witch-hunts of the 1950s, when thousands of loyal and hard-working people were publicly slandered and blacklisted on the basis or rumor, innuendo and guilt-by-association. Or perhaps it would be therapeutic to look all the way back to medieval Europe, where, historians tell us, it was common practice to deal with a passing epidemic by accusing the Jews of poisoning the wells and launching a mob-attack on the ghetto.

No matter how right we think we are, we need to remember that we may still be mistaken. More important yet, even if our opponent is wrong, we still need to defend his or her right to participate on equal terms. Once we forget that, we are on the way to losing the free society which makes activism possible.

Any corporation or developer who really does want to push through big, environmentally destructive projects in Hawaii would surely like nothing better than for Hawaii’s environmental movement to debase and discredit itself.  Hopefully the mature and respectful majority within the environmental community will take steps to rein in their zealots, before they trigger a backlash which puts our fragile island environment even more at risk.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

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