San Francisco has a history of contentious politics, and a reputation of being liberal thanks to the counterculture groups that have been especially vocal over time. One thing I’m learning as a resident, a lesson that is especially obvious during the pandemic, is that this liberalism certainly isn’t on display in some of its local politics.
There’s a lot to potentially unpack here, which has been done recently by great journalists1,2, and I’m not here to dive into the history of the City, the fact that it’s both a City and a County with implications on the governing bodies and system of voting on referenda, and the fact that the countercultures thought to have taken over the City weren’t, actually, all that welcome.
There are a few incredibly controversial issues that are making the rounds in newspaper op-eds, Nextdoor and Twitter posts, the newsletters and statements of elected officials. I don’t know if we’re just used to arguing after four years of Trump in office, or if we’re forgetting the rules of debate after our year in isolation, but it seems that things are getting, shall we say, slightly out of hand.
Sure, the struggle with our teacher’s union with our politicians about opening schools is a huge issue. And we have a severe housing crisis because we simply don’t have enough housing at a rate that people can actually afford. So, surely we’re all focused on that, right?
We’re spending time arguing about renaming the schools, about the system of street closures that went into place during the pandemic,3 about the resulting traffic mitigation efforts that went into place to deal with the side effects of closing streets,4 whether or not someone’s commute increased or decreased by five minutes, whether a Ferris wheel should stay in Golden Gate Park for an extra year,5 whether a proposed building casts a shadow for ten minutes over a park (never mind that that building is a proposed addition to a hospital and has been in the works for two years).6
And, sure, there should be debate about these issues, to ensure they’re done correctly, that they don’t cause more problems than they solve. The argument in a truly progressive, citizen-first society, should be about how, not about if.
But the arguments I’m seeing can be captured by a single word: entitlement.
People feel entitled to their way of life not changing.
“I don’t want the Great Highway to stay closed because of the increased traffic on other streets,” becomes, “I don’t want the Great Highway to stay closed because I’ve lived here for 40 years and it’s always been a road” the minute traffic mitigation efforts are implemented.
“Now that the street is closed, I have to go an extra three blocks out of my way in my vehicle that is designed to transport me over long distances.”
“If that building is built, the neighborhood won’t look like it did before” (this, by the way, is usually a thinly veiled racist and classist comment about not wanting affordable housing because of the “types of people” who will move in).
What frustrates me the most is, none of these problems are unsolvable. Well, that’s not true: they’re unsolvable if we’re stuck in our own entitlement of how we think our own world should look, how we deserve to be the center of our own universe, that we’ll do anything to avoid slight inconvenience or increased prices even if it’s for the greater good. If we are stuck arguing about whether or not change should happen, we will be carried along with it and wonder how we got to this scary new place. If we acknowledge change is happening and argue about the best way to ride the wave of change, then at least we’ll get somewhere.
I was recently in a meeting (is that still the phrasing, if I wasn’t “in” anywhere except my house in front of a computer?) in which a long-time member of this particular group began ranting about a particular operational process (these vagaries are on purpose). Someone else, of a similar age and race and gender demographic (y’all: guess), joined in and together they laid it on pretty thick.
Those little Zoom hands were going up pretty quickly in all the Zoom squares as the rest of us digested what was happening.
Oh man, my hatred of conflict was making it hard to think. I was worried everyone would start reacting with defensiveness But then I realized, not once during these diatribes did either of these people offer any solutions, they were just railing about the status quo and how it was terrible. Do you know what the best response is to someone who’s just ranting?
Offering potential solutions even you think they’re being ridiculous, because it will quickly uncover the superficiality of their argument.
Slowly, the rest of us gently took a turn, and even if the suggestion was naive or impossible, throwing ideas out there moved the conversation along. Cause you know what? These people weren’t wrong. But they were yelling “you’re dumb” and tempting a “no, you’re dumb” playground response. That’s not going to get anything done.
It takes entitlement to think, “You’re dumb” is a valid argument.
It takes a true leader to as, “Why do you think that?” and keep asking why and how in order to get to the true issue, the issue that we can argue over how to solve.
It also takes a true leader to turn away from the argument if they can’t get a true answer to the “Why do you think that” question. If the answer is always “You’re dumb,” then you’re arguing with an idiot and need to focus attention on people who are willing to consider that you’re not dumb.
I used to think entitlement was about cutting in line, about rolling through a stop sign. It’s so much more nuanced, obviously, and I have to think a lot about it for myself. Am I recalcitrant to something for ethical reasons or because “it’s dumb?”
Have you caught yourself in this trap? Comment below to tell us about it!
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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- https://www.sfchronicle.com/author/heather-knight/ ↩
- https://www.sfchronicle.com/author/bob-egelko/ ↩
- https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/heatherknight/article/Golden-Gate-Park-s-main-drag-has-been-closed-to-16081726.php ↩
- https://www.sfmta.com/projects/great-highway-and-outer-sunset-traffic-management-project ↩
- https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/article/Ferris-wheel-making-the-rounds-once-again-in-S-F-16001426.php ↩
- https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/S-F-community-groups-trying-to-stop-UCSF-s-15961700.php ↩