Science has now shown that myriads of species—perhaps as low as bacteria—have “languages” by which they may communicate with other members of their own. But human beings remain at the pinnacle of the language-makers, able through our words to express even the finest of nuance in feeling and concept.
How has it come about, then, that we have then come to discount and neglect this most beautiful gift?
Language, by its nature, facilitates relationship. When people cease to talk to one another, relationships suffer, atrophy and die. And with the poisonous factionalism and hyper-partisanship characterizing discourse, that’s exactly what we see happening today.
Stories are told of “back in the day” when, as much as Republicans and Democrats in Congress disagreed with each other on politics and policy, they still developed strong personal friendships with each other. Why, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill regularly had dinner together! Today, there are those who have come to Congress who never have and “by principle” never will even acknowledge the existence of some “on the other side of the aisle.”
Well, that’s a “principle” that sucks. Forasmuch as this intransigence has affected the formal workings of the political sphere, through talk radio, social media, and internet outlets the extreme factionalism has trickled down to warp much ordinary human interaction. Litmus tests have been set for whether I will deem you a worthy human being anymore. It’s become okay for even the strength of family bonds to be broken if one disagrees with the votes other family members have cast, or holds a different view of God than they do, or simply holds a set of opinions that may be different.
And that’s not just crazy. Anything that sets about to so tear asunder human relationships is nothing short of evil.
Here’s where language comes in. It can be used as a blunt instrument to attack. But as rich an instrument as it is, it can alternatively be used to build bonds of understanding.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a movement that had arisen among some residents in Lents to rid their neighborhood of the ministrations of our Mobile Hospitality Center because they believed its presence was only making worse the homeless problems they were experiencing there. I first became of the breaking sentiment through a small barrage of critical messages that were posted on Nightwatch’s Facebook page. Those were then followed by some menacing voicemails left for us late at night. Then I started receiving emails and phone calls.
Because the emailers and phone callers identified themselves, I was able to communicate with them. While it would have easy for me to either dismiss them as “yahoos” or “cranks,” I knew it was important for me to listen. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that their complaints were being fed by a lot of misinformation. At the top of their list was the belief that Nightwatch was comprised of a bunch of carpetbaggers from the suburbs who elected to come to Lents from their safe neighborhoods to feel good about themselves serving the poor, but with no regard to the people who actually lived there. There were also misconceptions about what we did during our two-hours-per-week operation. A couple of complainants characterized our work as “throwing street parties for drug addicts.” Many believed that all the litter they found in the neighborhood was due to Nightwatch not picking up after itself. There were even those who believed our vehicle was needle-distribution van.
But there was more listening than that I needed to do. I needed to hear what underlay all the anger the residents in Lents were feeling. While I believed that Nightwatch was being scapegoated, I couldn’t deny the anger was real and it had to be sourced somewhere. What I heard were some stories about the dimensions of the homelessness problem that were truly horrifying. About human waste being discarded just about anywhere, for instance. About campers carelessly disposing needles around elementary school playgrounds. And finally, about the residents imploring the city over and over and over again to do something about the problem, yet being left with the feeling that they were being totally ignored.
In electing to talk with our detractors, I was able first of all to dispel some of the myths they carried about Nightwatch. Many didn’t even know we had serving in Lents through the Mobile Hospitality Center for as long as six years. Until recently, we operated so “under the radar,” with no evident disruption to the community, that they didn’t even know we were there. Furthermore, they didn’t know we only found ourselves in Lents because churches in Lents asked us to come help them there, and that practically all the volunteers that serve through the MHC were their own neighbors.
But in listening to them, I was also able to affirm that they were justified in their outrage of the abuses some of the campers were perpetrated. If they were engaged in any illegal activity, there was no reason to treat them any differently than they would anyone who was breaking the law—they should call the police. As far as the alienation they felt from the city because of its responsiveness, I told them I was more on their side than they no doubt realized. I told them I believed the folks in Lents were being treated unfairly by the city, that they never were paid the same attention than were the residents in the Pearl District, Eastmoreland, or the West Hills. As a blue-collar neighborhood they were invested with the same care, and if if they staged that protest against City Hall, I would be among the first to stand up with them.
Did it make a difference? I can say it did for me personally. I can draw all sorts of conclusions about people (all nasty ones) when all I have is their anonymous social media postings to go by. Adversaries take on a entirely new dimensionality when you get to know them. You can see the possibility of even becoming friends.
But it looks like it made a difference in other ways as well. Last Tuesday evening, a “town hall” meeting was scheduled in Lents to address the homelessness crisis, and it sounded like a good number were going to attend “loaded for bear,” with Nightwatch being raised as a convenient target. In the course of my conversations with concerned Lents neighbors, I had been asked whether they could share my responses with others. Apparently, the grapevine distributed them widely. When the meeting came, a detailed presentation of the issues didn’t even mention Nightwatch. Only at the very end was it even alluded to when a gentleman rose and said, “You know how to get rid of the homeless problem in Lents? Get rid of that van that distributes the needles.” He was shouted down.
One of the things I told those in Lents with whom I communicated was that, in sympathizing with their concerns, we at Nightwatch would strive in all that we did to do better.
Especially in these times of high partisanship, in terms of keeping lines communication open, that’s something we all could say.
We could all do better.