The public discourse on homelessness has deteriorated to such a degree recently that open and hostile “hate speech” is no longer uncommon. Disparaging words are now even used by journalists and public officials to label people who live in the streets, and ugly and demeaning stereotypes are now perpetuated by people who should know better. My case in point here is an article that appeared several months ago in Noozhawk (May 29) by a local commentator, Randy Alcorn.
Alcorn’s article is titled “Bummed-Out Communities Reaching Their Limits,” which hints at both its content and tone. “Bummed out,” as you know, is American vernacular typically meaning disappointed, saddened and/or depressed Later in the article we learn of Alcorn’s “concern” for the increasing numbers of people living on the streets of Santa Barbara. Therefore, the lexical choice of “bummed” for the headline plays on the highly prejorative word for those who live on the streets, “bum” — a word that I equate with other hateful and derogatory slurs.
Through the article, Alcorn uses a slew of other hateful words for those without permanent housing, including “transients” (which means people who are just “passing through”), “vagrant” (which means “hapless wanderers”), “derelicts” (which means “outcasts”) and “panhandlers.”
An “us/them” logic runs through the Alcorn article in which “we,” the readers, are tacitly contrasted with “them,” the homeless. Supposedly, “we” are law-abiding citizens who are from Santa Barbara and work here, look clean, have ample money in our pockets and are busy doing a lot of things. “They” are dirty criminals who come from somewhere else, are typically lazy, penniless drunks who have nothing to do but to get in the way of tourists and beg for change.
This ugly stereotype is a lie and does not accurately represent most of the people I know on the streets. I have been a social worker helping those on the streets for more than four years, and I have come to know many good, honest, hardworking and respectful folks, some of whom are caught in challenging situations that could happen to anybody. I have also met a few people who are caught in the throes of mental illness and addiction, and have learned how inadequate our services can sometimes be for helping those people.
One of my teachers at UCSB, the eminent sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani (who died in 2004), described this us/them logic as based upon “contrast conceptions,” noting their role in identity formation. If “we” imagine ourselves as rational, hardworking and clean, “they” become the polar opposite — emotional, lazy and dirty. These collective definitions of “the Other” become fantasies of marginalization that are critical to the maintenance of a society structured in dominance and hierarchy, and help sustain the hatred inherent in racism, sexism and other forms of structural violence. As we lift ourselves up, we push them down.
Professor Shibutani observed long ago how contrast conceptions are employed in war propaganda. The face of the enemy is often portrayed as less than human — often a beast or pesty parasite, perhaps so as to make it easier to mistreat them or even kill them. As we shall see, Alcorn’s article is an exercise in the dehumanization of those on the streets. Actually, it is one of the most hateful pieces of journalism that I have ever seen. To my eyes, it is comparable to Nazi propaganda, and I can’t imagine a similar article making similar comparisons making it to print if it discussed any other group, such as African Americans, Latinos or Jewish Americans.
Alcorn’s “Bummed Out” is structured around a dominant metaphor — the increasing numbers and supposed bad behavior of those on the streets is likened to “an infestation of pigeons.” Alcorn sees the following similarities:
» When alone they are not much of a problem, but when they congregate they become a filthy nuisance.
» Their numbers can easily overwhelm an area because they defecate everywhere and only grudgingly make way for passersby.
Alcorn see the causes of pigeon infestations and the suffering of those with permanent housing as the same: the availability of food and the lack of perceived danger.
The simplicity of Alcorn’s eloquent reduction is baffling. He does not ramble on about high unemployment rates, the globalization of labor markets that have sent jobs overseas, the lack of adequate mental health services or rehabilitation beds for recovering addicts. He doesn’t seem to care that he is talking about veterans who have risked their lives for our nation and foster care kids who have been shuffled around from home to home often without the compassion they deserve. We get no sense that some of these people have been devastated by medical problems. For Alcorn, they are all just the same — dirty, lazy, drunken “bums.”
The solution Alcorn presents to the problem of pigeon infestations and the increasing numbers of citizens without housing is the same and just as simplistic. Alcorn urges us to make the living conditions of those on the street “hostile to them.” Given that we are a city with more than 1,000 people living on the streets and less than 500 shelter beds, I would say that goal has been achieved. Perhaps Alcorn could spend a week sleeping outdoors in downtown Santa Barbara and share with us how inviting his experience was.
Moreover, given that the police continue to write tickets for those found sleeping outdoors, how much more hostile does he want things to get? Even the mention of increasing the hostility toward those on the streets in a climate in which hate crimes against the homeless are soaring seems terribly irresponsible and lacking in civility.
We are told not to feed them nor make them feel welcome. I guess Alcorn would like hungry families half-starved on our streets.
Metaphors are powerful symbols, and the image of the other-as-beast is crucial to the operation of modern society. A society structured in dominance needs metaphor of hierarchy and hatred to justify the mistreatment and oppression of those who serve little purpose for corporations.
While these metaphors support practices of domination, resistance to them is crucial so that hatred can be stopped and violence prevented.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He was appointed by county Supervisor Doreen Farr to the South Coast Homeless Advisory Committee and is a board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).