Minneapolis protest against Arizona immigrant law SB 1070 (Wikimedia Commons, Author Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA)

SB1070 is said to bring out the venom. But in some ways, it brings out the saccharine.

I was out of the office Thursday last week for Veterans Day. And that’s why I had to miss a panel discussion on Arizona’s polarizing immigration–criminal statute. It was hosted by the Phoenix School of Law and was titled “SB1070: Its Beginnings to Its Future.”

Pretty generic stuff—from the title onward, they sought not to alienate anyone scattered along the political spectrum.

And then in the press announcement, I caught two interesting points:

1.Event is NOT open to the general public.

Yes, it was underlined and in red.

Odd, I thought, that a discussion touching on a matter of massive public interest would be open to law students and media only.

The second unique feature came next:

2. “Discussion is expected to be academic and an opportunity to be the ‘voice of reason’ on what has become a polarized piece of legislation.”

I cannot remember the last time event organizers sought to increase attendance by reassuring potential attendees that the occasion would be “academic” and devoid of controversy.

But then I remembered, That’s not entirely true. The last time I saw the same behavior was … the last time a conference on SB1070 was held.

ASU Law School’s October 8 conference will be the focus of a short item we are running in the December issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine (mailed this week). But those conference leaders, like their counterparts at Phoenix Law, also sought repeatedly to douse any flames of partisanship or controversy. Attendees were assured, more than once, that they were committed to looking at the law and its effects, reasonably and rationally. They would leave aside any protests and hysterics.

As if protest and hysteria are the same thing.

I have some sympathy for that approach, because I have participated in just that kind of firestorm-avoidance therapy.

Last April, I moderated a panel discussion on SB1070. The organizers who asked me to play the role were almost painfully committed to a discussion that was reasoned and drained of any of the anger that can be felt almost everywhere in Arizona—outside academic discussions.

In at least two of these panel discussions, the participants were largely people who were opposed to SB1070 (as I did not attend the Phoenix Law event, I can’t claim a sweep). But they worked mightily to preserve the impression that there was a huge space between academics who largely opposed the law and street protestors who did the same.

I draw two tentative conclusions about this strange dynamic.

1. Based on the results of this month’s elections, there is a difference between those who stand by their partisan rabble-rousers who stake out perhaps peripheral positions that may be occasionally discourteous and loud—and those who distance themselves from those obstreperous protestors and act like they may have stepped in dog feces. There is a difference between people who understand that their grassroots base may be noisy but helpful, and those who think that the base must be discarded and dissed because elections are won in university lecture halls.

They are called, respectively, Republicans and Democrats. Or, if you’d like, winners and losers.

One group views its base as passionate activists, and the other sees them as hysterical discontents.

2. It is easy to mistake passion for hysteria, as women’s history makes clear. My wife and I just saw a play that demonstrates that in a vibrant way. “In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play),” by Sarah Ruhl, is a Tony Award-nominated play that is “a comedy about marriage, intimacy and electricity.” It shows behaviors that some of its Victorian characters view as deranged and even hysterical. The period piece shows that many behaviors were commonly acknowledged to be better ignored and marginalized.

Of course, we laugh now at that misguided approach, which led to entire generations that ignored women’s contributions. If this year’s election lends any lesson, it may be a reminder that ignoring the colorful and passionate side of yourself is not the path to success—of a person, a society, or a party.

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