Kelly: Council hearing a model of civility - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:52 am
Kelly: Council hearing a model of civility

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Look back on coverage of Tuesday's public hearing on Ben Gray's proposed amendments to city discrimination laws.

Coming Tuesday: Follow live coverage of the City Council meeting.

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In contrast to much of the public-policy debate in America these days, a controversial public hearing before the Omaha City Council on an emotional topic was conducted last week with civility.

Opinions were intense, pro and con, on a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance to protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. Kudos to the 100 or so people who testified over nearly four hours and to the council president, Tom Mulligan.

"Two years ago when this came up, it did get out of hand," Mulligan said. "We had some public displays, shouting out and things like that. This time I wanted to make sure everybody had the opportunity to speak, but at the same time to make sure everyone was respectful."

A vote on Councilman Ben Gray's proposal is scheduled for this Tuesday, so we'll see if the air of civility endures when one side wins and one loses, or if the proposal is amended.

"Gay rights" is an impassioned cultural issue nationally, and Omaha finds itself in the spotlight. Good, intelligent people stand on opposite sides, all feeling strongly about their positions — including two of Nebraska's most respected citizens, who testified at Tuesday's hearing.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne of Omaha spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance, and championship-winning NU assistant football coach Ron Brown spoke against. How do they and others come to such deep-seated, opposite conclusions on issues?

A growing area of research suggests that our brains are hard-wired to make us — to use very generic terms — liberal or conservative. Or at least, along the political spectrum, to lean in one of those directions.

Professor John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of only 15 to 20 political scientists to become a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is a national leader in the research.

How sure is he that physiological aspects of our brains affect how we think on controversial issues?

"I'm real confident," he said. But to convince people of the notion's validity in what he acknowledges is a novel area of research, "We've got a selling job to do."

In a 2008 article in Science magazine, "Political Attitudes Vary with Physiology," Hibbing wrote of research indicating that biology plays a role in shaping our political temperaments.

In an interview Friday, he said it's always important to clarify that. Biology, he said, doesn't strictly mean genetics: Our environment, including our life experiences, can affect our biology.

As an example, Hibbing cited changes in the hippocampus region in the brains of London taxi drivers over many years of driving.

The London Telegraph reported on a study by University College London that found physiological differences in the brains of people of conservative views when compared with those of liberal views.

The differences are not necessarily from birth. Research leader Geraint Rees said brain scans of volunteers suggest "there is something about political attitude that is encoded in our brain structure through our experience."

Hibbing noted that bitter political debate started early in American history, but that today, "vitriol seems more palpable."

Robust debate is good. Constant incivility and anger are not. Hibbing said the civil discourse at last week's Omaha City Council hearing "shows, at least, that it can be done."

One of the hopes of his research, he said, is that people realize those who disagree with them aren't necessarily "uninformed," but simply "perceive the world differently."

Coach Brown, an opponent of the proposed ordinance, warned council members that Christ would hold them personally accountable for their decisions. UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman soon publicly scolded him — not for his religious statement, but for not making it clear that he was speaking only for himself, not the university.

Perlman said the Board of Regents "has made it clear that the university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."

When the ordinance was first proposed two years ago, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce opposed it. Now the chamber is neutral because of disagreements among members, though the chamber's young professionals council favors it.

Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Omaha is one of 15 whose gay residents have no specific legal protection from discrimination.

In 2010 the proposal failed on a 3-3 vote, with Councilman Franklin Thompson abstaining. Thompson has promised to vote this time, based on which side he thought presented stronger arguments at the public hearing; he hasn't disclosed which way he is leaning.

Mulligan, the council president, voted against the proposal in 2010. He said he still worries about possible ambiguity in its language, particularly with regard to transgender citizens.

"Right now," he said, "I'm really concerned with the impact on the business community."

At the public hearing, he said, he appreciated speakers on both sides of the issue but Mulligan was especially impressed by proponents, including filmmaker Payne, whose parents' former downtown restaurant he said he patronized.

Payne told council members such anti-discrimination laws will be commonplace across the country in the near future, and urged that the ordinance be approved.

Mulligan said he was proud that the public hearing proceeded without undue rancor. Beforehand, he said, he told college students favoring the proposal that "your cause will go a long way if you come in here prepared and act professionally, courteously and respectfully."

A Republican on the officially nonpartisan City Council, Mulligan said part of what's wrong with Congress today is that everything is polarized.

"Like it or not," he said, "we've just got to work together to find common ground, or we're not getting anywhere. We all have to live together in this country, and it's up to us to figure it out."

Contact the writer:

402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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