This week, I had the singular experience of being suspended from our Next Door online neighborhood group for allegedly breaking the following guidelines:
Those of you who know me may be surprised, nay shocked, by this and you may well wonder what happened to the usually mild-mannered person you thought you knew. What, you may well ask, did Maya say that got her tossed out of her neighborhood chat site?
I happened to stumble across a thread about San Jose’s attempts to house the homeless, focused on finding stable living situations for those who have contracted Covid-19. Authorities formulated a project to build tiny homes on an available piece of property so these folks could shelter in place like those of us who have a place in which to shelter.
After being NIMBYed out of at least one neighborhood, our officials had found a piece of property with good road access but more toward the fringes of the community and after a series of public hearings, went forward with the project. This caused some of the homeowners in the area to panic.
The posts I responded to spoke of filth and drugs and how “those people” would destroy property values. They suggested camping on the mayor’s lawn and other forms of retaliation against named public officials, including lawsuits. Some waxed political and called those officials names.
So what did I say? Here’s the most characteristic example, written when someone with whom I was having a companionable and solutions-oriented discussion made a comment about looking at underlying issues rather than trying to solve the problem with a bandaid (the tiny homes):
I’m not suggesting that we don’t look at underlying issues, which are legion. In fact, I’d argue that we are where we are with this because of our tendency to focus on individual symptoms of the disease our society is riddled with, without considering those underlying or related issues. It’s not just mental illness or addiction. It’s also the vast disparity in wealth and poverty, the lack of a cohesive safety net—including social services and healthcare, the underlying philosophy that each American should be self-subsistent and sovereign with its companion ideal that everyone ought to be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps—regardless of whether they actually possess boots. Our educational system is involved, our lack of social cohesion, our partisan political system, even our disregard for the fundamental imperatives of faith.
A huge part of the issue of homelessness is that a significant portion of the American public believes that if you are homeless you must have done something to deserve it. If you’re that poor, it’s your own fault. This creates a deeply ingrained reluctance to consider systematic means of helping these people. Because in this philosophy, everyone is responsible only for and to themselves. This, too, is rooted in fear, because if we acknowledge that homelessness for a great many people (such as the families that live in RVs along streets near my home) is circumstantial, we must acknowledge that it could happen to us.
So, yes, this is a multi-faceted symptom of deeper issues. If we are to address those issues, we need to come to a point of unity about their causes and the responsibility we share in solving them. Otherwise we (and our elected leaders) will endlessly argue from self-interest, fear and political rationalizations, and not consult—frankly but respectfully and compassionately—about how to work toward a solution. Having said that, when a patient is brought to the ER bleeding from a gunshot wound, the ultimate solution maybe to remove the bullet. But the first task is to simply stop the bleeding.
That was not the mildest thing I said. Nor was it the strongest. But it was the most succinct. The strongest thing I said was that it made me sad that we were more concerned with our property values than with what these souls were suffering.
In the backlash, I was told I was a “dominant supporter” of the project itself, though I’d never once made any statements about it other than that we might treat it as the fruit of honest concern for the homeless rather than a plot by our officials to harm us for Reasons and view it as a health crisis rather than a pitched battle against the forces of evil.
I was asked if I’d be willing to have tiny homes in my backyard (I would, if it were part of a larger plan), and I had the usual insults to my intelligence and motives that I’m well-used to hearing and which ceased to bother me long ago.
And then, I got suspended.
I will admit that my arguments may have caused some folks in the group to feel shame. Most human beings react to shame with anger and protest that they should never have to feel it. But in my experience, I’ve found shame to be a very instructive emotion. One that can be the seed kernel of positive change and the cultivation of valuable virtues. Shame has made me a better person than I was before I experienced it. It’s made me less selfish and more patient and careful of other people’s feelings, especially when I’m trying to engage them and get them to think about something—like which is more likely to effect change—anger and fear, or reason and compassion.
Am I ashamed of anything I said in the dialogue? No, but I do regret having once resorted to sarcasm when, in response to a call to get out and whip up more fear and anger, I said: “Wow. So is it time to get out our torches and pitchforks?”
I made that comment back at the very beginning of the discussion and never said anything remotely like it after that. Ironic, that the one sarcastic comment I made wasn’t what got me in hot water.
One heartening thing was that while, in the beginning, I was the lone voice asking for compassion for the homeless and the possibility that our officials were doing their best to solve a difficult problem, I soon started receiving privately messaged “thank yous” from people. Then some of those people cautiously began to comment themselves.
Sometimes the people you’re speaking to aren’t actually the people you’re speaking to. 😉
I did get blocked from a comment thread once long ago on a different forum when I suggested that there are things that transcend politics and issues—like homelessness, poverty, healthcare, and immigration—that should be sacrosanct from politics. If they aren’t, they will be with us forever.