Lumping and Labeling

19 Aug

If you don’t mind, I’d like to step back for a second and talk about this conversation that we’re having.

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When I was considering moving back to Buffalo almost four years ago, it was articles like this in The Economist that sold me. The faceless British wisdom talked up a new Bio-Med Corridor, a progressive new Governor, and Big Plans for the city – like a casino, Canalside and an ethanol plant. Things look pretty good from the outside looking in.

Along this week comes a similar article, from Treehugger.com, stating that if the world wants to get off of oil, they should move to Buffalo. Maybe not the worldwide audience of the The Economist, but the same basic idea: an outsider, who doesn’t know the culture of Buffalo, looks at a set of objective facts – water, rail, built environment – and concludes that Buffalo is in a good position. It is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is also, however, as we all know, wrong.

Which leads me back to the nature of the conversation that we’re having. Look at the last several weeks worth of columns on this site, since it was announced Bass Pro was not coming, on the topics of Canalside, the shootings at CityGrill, and the Islamic cultural center in southern Manhattan (doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like Ground Zero Mosque, does it – will Libs ever learn to frame?).

Very little time was spent on the merits of any policy or idea. Most of the time was spent on, what I like to call, Lumping and Labeling. City vs Suburbs. Obstructionists vs Developers. Liberals vs Communists. It goes something like this: “You want Bass Pro? Well, you’re white, male, and live in the suburbs! You would want a redneck fishing bait shack! You also love Sarah Palin and hate poor people and the city. Sarah Palin sucks. So does Newt Gingrich. You’re an idiot.”

Think I am blowing it out of proportion? In the last two weeks alone several commenters have asked Alan if he has gone insane, had a nervous breakdown, or was simply Barry Goldwater. Chris Smith has been accused of being a right wing shill for the corporate establishment. I have fared better, as a simple racist and bigot. That’s okay, as an admitted conservative, I am a lost cause from the start.

Just as the highest and best use of the Internet is often porn, the highest and best use of this online community seems to be yelling, name calling, and screaming that other’s opinions don’t matter because you are _______________ (white, black, male (never female) , suburban, city-dweller, rich, poor, etc). If you are from any suburb, you live in Spaulding Lake. If you live in the city, you are an elitist hypocrite from the Village (pick one).

I hesitate to ever think the online conversation here mirrors the real world, where people speak to each other face to face, but in this case, I think its not too far off. I hear worse from folks on the radio, and in polite conversation when a member of the “other” group is not present. Because what I am talking about is not trolling. I am proud that we have a minimum of trolling on WNYMedia. There are a number of reasons for this: Chris and Marc patrol for the worst, the author’s vigorously defend their own work, and other commenters self-police through mockery.  So we do not have the ignorant racism of Buffalo News commenters nor the molotov cocktail throws of BRO. No, what we have is informed prejudice.

I am enough of a sociologist to know the value of breakdown people into groups for study or description. I am fond of accusing “Liberals” of certain actions. But to me, that Liberal is no specific person: it is a consolidated and distilled combination of the message from various media outlets and personalities. A mishmash of HuffPo and Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow and Nancy Pelosi. That is very different than throwing your rhetorical opponent, a single individual person, into an opposing group, bludgeoning them with stereotypes and prejudices, and forcing them to defend the worst (and unrelated) positions of any member of that group. Hamas wants the mosque! Al Qaeda doesn’t want it! Worse, so does Sarah Palin! Refudiate!

Chris and I struggled for a name of this phenomenon. I called it Lazy Categorization. Lump me in with a group you already don’t like, and then you don’t have to listen to what I say. You can yell at me about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, all of which I ignore (but Liberals seems to listen to continuously). Yelling about Rush is easy. It substitutes for talking about the topic.

Chris calls it Ideological Xenophobia (not to steal his thunder from a future post, I hope). That’s pretty good. It captures another aspect of this phenomenon: the fear of ideas outside of your comfort zone, and complete invalidation of the ideas of any particular “other.” I’ll hand it to you, it is easier to argue when your opponent is wrong before he even opens his mouth because he is a white, male, suburban capitalist. Touche’.

In the end, though, it is also simple Tribalism. Buffalo’s tribalism is far from unique. But it seems to have especially more power here than other places in the country I have lived or worked (which is now most of it). That’s because Buffalo lacks the two major economic engines present in so many vibrant regions: money and anonymity. We focus a lot on the obvious lack of money, but the “smallness” of Buffalo (City of Good Neighbors, and all that) is often seen as a strength. I am beginning to disagree. No metro area of 1.2 million should be this small. There should be more players, on every field – business, politics, activists, non-profits. I should not be able to recognize the same faces at every table. In other cities, projects get done because no one knows each other, or whom to stop. Not everyone has a personal history of strife, slights, politics, and hurt feelings with everyone else, all gnawing off the same bone and fighting for scraps. 

So back to the outsiders flocking to Buffalo because of the oil bust. What will they find? How will they be welcomed? Which tribe are they let in? The biggest tribe of all in Buffalo is the Born and Raised and Never Left Tribe. The newly arrived often don’t know there is a such a tribe until they wonder why they can’t get a job or a place at the table. Buffalonians are open-hearted, friendly, and welcoming, as long as you are only looking for a glass of lemonade or help shoveling out your driveway. More on that in future columns.

11 Responses to “Lumping and Labeling”

  1. Colin Eager August 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    “the Islamic cultural center in southern Manhattan (doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like Ground Zero Mosque, does it – will Libs ever learn to frame?).”

    No, they won’t.

    • Brian Castner August 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

      A mark of pride, or incompetence, I wonder.

      • Colin August 20, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

        I think liberals like playing the serious thinker role and refusing to boil an issue down to a soundbite. It’s a disastrous choice, but they make it almost every time.

  2. mark August 19, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    well said. the dialogue around these parts over the last three weeks has sucked the fun out of it for me temporarily.

  3. Mike August 19, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    I’ve lived in and traveled to several different G20 countries and all of them have the same worries and concerns about jobs, keeping their kids close to home, and attracting the right kind of investment. Buffalo is in no way alone. We just cry about to the degree that it looks like victimization and a lack of selfconfidence. In all those places I lived and traveled their perception of Buffalo was great. The name BUFFALO is well received. People think it’s a cool name because it’s a cool animal and quintessentially american. I would market the hell out of that name (esp internationally), as well as our of our productive and affordable workforce, and all the other stuff we know are great. On the other hand, I’ve been to some pretty shitty places where the people’s selfconfidence is the only think they have going for them. Their moxy is contagious. Time to man up.
    I see the Buffalo News online has an article on five people who left Bflo for opportunities elsewhere. Guess what: that happens everywhere. Confidence is sexy!

  4. Ethan Cox August 19, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

    Agreed.

    Look, I have nuanced views of the suburb/city divide or whatever.  I just got sick of being told I don’t, or can’t, have “good things.”  I actually like Buffalo.  The overreaction to the Bass Pro deal really ticked me off… we do have good things, and we’ll keep having more of them as more people do move here–and I’m cool with using “here” loosely–as the economy readjusts, along with the climate and the price of resources… So, yeah.  I was part of teh ugly.  But I, for one anyway, am not really in any way troubled by Canalside, or the Peace Bridge or The Casino… there are more fundamental and interesting good things to follow the progress of.

    • STEEL August 20, 2010 at 1:26 am #

      Here here!  

      Oh and if you think people should have fewer rights or should freely give them up to be ‘sensitive’ because of their method of worship (casuing no harm to others) or sound of their last name then you ARE a bigot and should be lumped in with that group and labeled as such.

    • Ethan August 20, 2010 at 8:51 am #

      OK, just to be clear; I’m not taking up the “mosque” discussion; I’m sticking with city/subrubs nastiness.

    • Brian Castner August 20, 2010 at 9:45 am #

      @ Ethan: I avoided all names for a reason. I was talking about the conversation, not you. But thanks for fessing up.

      @ STEEL: And thanks for missing the point. At least you called me a bigot, and not a racist, this time.

      • STEEL August 20, 2010 at 9:53 am #

        The point is – you have no point that can be defended.

  5. Brad August 22, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    This is a very interesting topic. With regards to the level of discourse, however, I noticed that the comments on the Buffalo News website actually became quite rational and realistic once people started using their real names and towns. I’m not suggesting that the Buffalo News was right to make that move, BUT – the comments in the wake of the City Grill shooting were basically suburban residents saying that they’re not afraid to go downtown. I think that might be a more representative sampling of how “regular people” think. Meanwhile, the Buffalo News continues to attempt to foment some kind of mass hysteria about Chippewa. It looks like they are on a morality crusade to close the bars earlier, and they are really pushing their agenda with a new headline every day about how dangerous Chippewa has become, even though they have no data to support their argument.

    Seeing this insanity playing out right before my eyes, as an outsider, I have to say this is the first time I actually understand what you guys (you, Alan, Chris) have been complaining about. Some cabal of “city fathers” has decided that the bars must close down earlier than 4 am. I have no idea why. There has been no real discussion of the merits. But this group – whoever they are – has the Buffalo News blaring incendiary headlines every day in support. Meanwhile, “regular” people just want to see more police around town and, specifically, more aggressive anti-gang policing, and nobody wants the bars to close earlier. Clearly though, there is someone – some group – that has decided the bars will close earlier than 4am. Whoever is pushing this campaign to close the bars earlier is definitely distinct from the “regular” people, since I’ve yet to hear from anyone who thinks it’s a good idea.

    I’ll end my “rant” here by saying that I think, generally, regular people are less reactionary and more open-minded than the discussion in the media and on the blogs represents. We all like Buffalo (since we live here), we all recognize that there are “things to do” – with kids or without, with alcohol or without – and we all want to see downtown continue to progress for the better.

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