Monday, October 5, 2009

an inferiority complex of superlative size (or, don't insult the locals)

here's an interesting story i ran across that got me thinking about westerners, easterners, and understanding other places.

it seems that a young woman from new england moved to dillingham, alaska, to work on the local public radio station. while there, she took up blogging, as a way to share her experience in the wilds of alaska with all those civilzed folks back home. given that the blog is called "I'm in Dillingham Alaska, What's Your Excuse?", you can maybe guess a bit of the tone.

that's the quiet version. where it hit the regular news was when suddenly, the locals got whiff of what all she was writing, and the shit storm began.

turns out they didn't always like their drunken and other rural escapades to be shared in a semi-scathing way with liberal elites out east. public sentiment swung against her, she was asked to resign from her job, and found herself the recipient of random pushes while on the street, that sort of thing.

there's a couple things going on here that i find interesting. heck, there's a million things, if you go through and read some of her blog posts, which i won't touch on here, but they have to do with native culture vs. white culture, alcoholism in rural, native areas, etc. it's a gold mine of things to talk about (if not all that well written), but for now, i'm just going to focus on what i think is the most important take-home message. it's one that i tell my cats, in fact, every time i have to stuff one of them into a kennel for a long car ride or plane trip.

"kitty", i say, "don't shit where you have to sleep. i'll be happier, you'll be happier, it's a win-win situation. trust me on this one."

i've never learned it to the extent that this person has. i mean - i think i've never managed to piss off an entire town. and it's more than just a matter of common sense. there's more to it than just not shitting where you sleep (i could find a less crass way of saying that, but then i'd have to forego the alliteration - and i love me a little alliteration). it's all about communication, and condescension. in some ways, i can't believe she didn't see it coming. did she really think it was going to be ok for an outsider to tell those stories in that tone - regardless of whether or not they were the truth?

just as teasing only works (i.e., doesn't hurt) when the other person knows you actually like them, so scathing commentary on another place, culture, or person is only not offensive when the two parties feel like equals. and easterners, bless thier sheltered hearts, will never understand that westerners just don't feel like equals. i referred to it as an inferiority complex previously, i think, but you can call it what you like: rural bias against perceived urban elitism seems to be the current catch-phrase. since most of the west is rural - and the rural areas tend to be more conservative out west - and most of the dominant, liberal population centers are in the east, this can easily be translated into a west vs. east kind of thing. and, now that i'm writing this, i'm realizing that she was a white urban easterner, commenting on a native, rural, alaskan culture. she came from at least three dominant cultures, compared to most locals. whenever you're not equal - whenever one person is speaking from a position of power - offense comes so much faster. and even if you think you're equal, you may not be. that's for the person in the subjugated position to decide - not the dominant one.

maybe one understands this more readily when one comes from a place that has been dubbed both the "20 miserable miles" and "the ugliest town on the Oregon Coast". even so, i had to learn it the hard way. i thought being from such a place gave me some sort of redneck cred. i thought growing up in otis - going camping in clearcuts, riding dirt bikes and ATVs - gave me an 'in', made me an equal, when i moved to montana. so, one day i flippantly referred to native Montanans - and, by extension, my dear friend Kevin, whom i was speaking to at the time - as 'hicks'.

he was totally, utterly, shocked and hurt. i had completely insulted him, without meaning to. i should have known better. i know how offensive it was, growing up, to hear portlanders complain about how ugly and horrible lincoln city was, how unsophisticated us natives were. i can remember in conversation with a friend, we agreed that "they don't get to [have a right to] complain about here yet, because they don't live here and know it. they don't know all the good. and until one loves it, one doesn't have the right to say how much it sucks." not that we had any sort of philosophical or rational logic to that statement, but doesn't it seem somehow kind of right? just as you have to love someone to tease them, shouldn't you have to also love a place before you insult it? i guess i thought he knew that i loved montana already, and the people in it. i guess i didn't understand that he still saw me as an outsider. he didn't push me over in the parking lot or anything. no - worse, to me - he just looked really sad.

i think i've veered off track here. and probably not made my original point clear, at all. i think it was - don't insult the locals. and the other point is - if you hurt someone, say you are sorry, as soon as you can. because sometimes, we're left wondering - did i say what i wanted to say, before they disappeared forever? but that's a different story, and i've veered so far off track, all i can do is add in a picture of kevin (on the left, camping in March 1995).

instead of a kind of conversational post about an interesting story, i've left myself missing a place i loved and left, and a person i'll never see again. next time i'm going to make a goddamned outline and follow it. sometimes place attachment and loss hurts almost as much as person love and loss.

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