Okay— pet peeve time. Last night I found myself at a meeting, and for those of us who have spent any length of time at public meetings, we all know there are two kinds: those which are boooooooooooring, and those at which emotions are running high, for one reason or another. This one was the latter.
The thing I hate about the non-boring kind of meeting is that people say all kinds of things they wouldn’t, if not for the heat of the argument, or the intensity of their feeling about the subject at hand. At least, that’s how I like to think about it. So when suddenly the fellow next to you gets all red in the face and publicly says he’s had it, and he’s moving to Pluto, and he’s taking his Zamboni with him, and to heck with all the duck-billed platypuses it helps, I think, to put it in that kind of context, (rather than to give in and publicly call him a duck-billed dunderhead, which, surprisingly, never actually helps.)
But back to last night.
The meeting to which I refer was the eagerly-awaited informational meeting regarding the herbicide incident which occurred at our local elementary school (see Chemical Soup). I was late to the meeting, which meant I sheepishly scurried in and sat down in the nearest available seat. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized the room had fairly neatly divided itself down the middle along party lines, as if a scrimmage were about to start: the Defensive Farmers versus the Pro-active Parents. Ooooooh, I thought. This is going to get ugly. I found myself wishing there was a third place to sit- if for no other reason than to avoid getting hit when the tomatoes and rotten eggs started flying.
And they didn’t, well- not right away. Fortunately for us, Cary Giguere from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture was leading the meeting and his style is very soft spoken and laid back; the kind of demeanor you might expect from someone whose job is to regularly lead contentious meetings, some of which involve participants lobbing actual hand grenades at one another. However, it didn’t take long before angry side one and angry side two were expressing increasingly inflammatory opinions. And then it happened.
“You people” intoned one attendee “Blah blah, blah blah blah.” I’m not going to focus on what he said next because the initial two words were really all he needed to say to make the point. In fact he said it several times.
You know, I have to say, there’s really nothing I love more than being referred to as “you people.” Seriously, if I haven’t been lumped together into an inappropriate and derogatory cultural group stereotype, I really feel my day is incomplete.
Does it matter which side this slur came from? I imagine it could just as easily come from the defense as from the offense… either: “You people need to learn about the reality of farming,” or “You people need to wake up and smell the hermaphroditic amphibians.” In theory it works both ways.
But can we think of other contexts in which this kind of phrase works, class? As in: “You people need to know your place… you people need to go back where you came from… you people don’t belong with our people.” It’s a phrase that brings to mind such lovely cultural innovations as the separate drinking fountain, the Black-List and the mandatory lapel-star.
When the recent presidential campaign became particularly ugly, it was this same “us versus them” sentiment which reared its ugly head, in the form of the idea that the election would, or should, be decided by “REAL AMERICANS.” As if people who live in small towns and live modest, Christian lives are somehow inherently more American that folks who live in cities, or who wear those weird Borg-like earphone devices and sip half-caff lattes. Annoying? Yes, but are we ready to start declaring them un-American? And then who, exactly, is next?
Of course, this same “real vs. not real” theme was also the basis of the Vermonters-are-elite-anti-American-commie-pinko-slime that underlay the well-known PAC commercial against Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 too- remember? To the rest of the country, ALL Vermonters have the potential to be considered “Latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving” non-Americans. Farmers, schmarmers- didn’t you know Vermonters are all “left-wing freak-show” socialists?
So Vermonters, even real ones by the generally accepted definition of being born here (as opposed to imitation Vermonters, of which I apparently am one) have the proven capacity to be characterized as not-real-Americans, when it becomes politically expedient to do so. What does all this rampant marginalization prove, anyway?
Here is what I think: I think each and every one of us is a “you people” to someone else. I think “you people” has no place in a discussion in which anyone has any plans to actually get anywhere. It’s great for being angry and expressing that anger; it’s great for instantly polarizing two different sides of an argument; it’s bloody terrific for forging an artificial division even where there wasn’t one before- ie: I personally am deliberately not on any “side” of the school herbicide debate because I am trying to hear all sides and make my own informed decision.
But “you people” leaves no room for that. It’s an “us or them” mentality. As our last president so famously and intolerantly intoned, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Yup. And we all see how well that worked out.
So at the end of the evening, in case you were interested, the issue at hand was resolved for the moment. Going forward, it was agreed, the contractor will conduct its annual herbicide spray on a weekend in order to allow any possible drift to dissipate before schoolchildren were present, and advance warning of a few days would be issued to parents. Additionally, tests for drift and well-water contamination would continue, to ensure that the cafeteria’s Pasta Surprise didn’t have any extra-special secret ingredients.
However, if I could contribute only one thing to this ongoing dialogue- and as long as schoolchildren play on a playground adjacent to a chemically treated corn crop I imagine it will continue to be one- it would be this: let’s drop not only the use of “you people,” but the sentiment behind it. Corny as it may be, I still somehow have to believe that, as Rodney King once requested, we can all get along.
In exchange for this, I solemnly swear not to sing “Kumbayah” in any public place, any time soon.