Commentary – The recent hullabaloo

Joe McWilliams

The recent hullabaloo over a Slave Lake town councillor’s remarks on homeless people has resulted in some useful discussion, at least.

Some of it has taken place on the Slave Lake Lakeside Leader and South Peace News’ Facebook pages. We’re happy to facilitate such conversations, as long as they are moderate and respectful. If they aren’t, they can take place somewhere else.

There’s no point in pretending problems don’t exist in society, and that includes in our own towns, families and right here in our own hearts and minds. Sometimes it takes a shock to get us looking in the right places – asking the right questions.

Stereotyping [that is, putting people into categories] is a natural instinct. There’s no need to be surprised that it happens. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Our ancestors honed the instinct for thousands of years. It’s in our cultural DNA at least – maybe even deeper.

So, if you think the people from the next valley, who look and behave differently, are inferior, guess what? It’s not just you.

This idea that we are all equal, that we deserve full respect and shouldn’t be regarded suspiciously is very recent. Such notions may have existed in limited pockets for centuries, but in practice? It’s more along the lines of “If you’re one of us, we’ll treat you with respect; if you aren’t, we’ll run you off.”

Civilization can be regarded as humankind’s long, slow, painful effort to get over that narrow-minded tribalism. That’s more or less what’s going on when we react negatively to somebody who doesn’t conform to our notions of ‘proper’ behaviour.

Run them off! Lock them up! Get rid of them! Call them names!

It’s a natural reaction, but it solves nothing. Various things have been attempted.

For example, the Soviet Union officially had no street people – at least in Moscow. It was a big showcase for communism, where such things could not exist for ideological reasons.

But of course, they did exist, they were just swept up and moved out of sight.

Same goes for India, back when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. Her government decided in the 1970s that central New Delhi – being a national symbol – needed to be free of street people. Boom! They were rounded up and herded off to somewhere else, where they appeared in even greater numbers.

We’ve got our own small-scale versions of the same problems right here at home. It’s unpleasant, but it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. How about Edmonton? It has some decent overnight shelters operating in winter, but what if people don’t want to use them, or can’t or won’t abide by the rules?

My wife and I were at a downtown address recently for an appointment. We got breakfast at the Tim Hortons on the ground floor of the office building. We hadn’t been there two minutes when a security guard was ordering one man off the premises. Another guy was refused use of the washroom. He left with a string of curses for the staff.

The patrons carried on, pretending to ignore all this.

Outside, a person was passed out on the ground, at eight or nine degrees below zero. Meanwhile, regular business flowed on, in and around all of this stuff.

This is apparently the world we live in. Once we’ve gotten past the harsh words, we need to figure out how to make things better.

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