The noon-hour talk radio show host on CFAX 1070, Pamela McColl, invited me on her show last week to talk about a recent article of mine, “NIMBY is not a 4-letter word,” that appeared on the editorial pages of the Times-Colonist newspaper.
(I also published the article on this website — subscribe today!)
The key point of the article is that the people closest to something are usually the first to examine it, ask questions about it and for whom it has the most meaning. This enquiry, born out of self-interest, often leads to important policy debates throughout a broader community.
During the interview, McColl asked what had inspired this idea.
I recalled that it was my father, a small-town Minnesota newspaperman, who taught me the concept of news. It was the early 1960s. I was a freshman in high school and eager to write for the school newspaper.
For something to be newsworthy, he told me, it had to have what he called “proximity,” which he defined in both geographic and personal terms.
“If it happens here,” he said, “it’s news. If it happens in Iowa, it’s not.” That’s geographic. But he added, “If it happens in Iowa to somebody from here, it’s still news.” That’s personal.
I gained experiential knowledge of my father’s wisdom as time went on. Like most people, I never gave too much thought to tragedies in other parts of the state. When somebody’s ice fishing house fell through the ice up north, I thought it was funny. Wintertime car accidents on Minnesota’s icy two-way roads didn’t bother me much.
But when a family of four from our small town all died in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck somewhere near North Dakota, I felt the impact. We lived in a town of less than 1,000 people, and everybody knew everybody. The oldest daughter in that family had been my babysitter.
I’ve come to understand that the notion of “proximity” plays a critical role in how each of us understands and relates to the world. Proximity also influences ideology.
Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisy pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.
It’s the underlying concept at work when an elected official opposes same-sex marriage, until one of his own children announces he or she is gay. Then they change their position. Former vice president Dick Cheney had this revelation many years ago when he learned his daughter was lesbian, making him aware of her struggle for sexual identity and how federal policies affected her.
I suspect the Comox Valley parents of a transgender child feel more strongly about the national debate over whether to allow people to use public bathrooms of the sex with which they most identify.
Parents who lost children and other loved ones in mass shootings at La Loche, Sask., Newton, Conn. or Colorado may or may not have changed their minds about specific gun control proposals or schools’ mental illness awareness policies. But their thinking is undoubtedly more complex and emotionally rooted now.
Without my father’s idea of proximity, it’s easy not to care about some other guy who got cancer, or the child shot at school, whose life never got started, or the LGBTQ people who just want a normal life.
Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisey pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.
Without a personal stake, we’re mostly immune to the tragedy and hardships endured by others. It’s a natural defense mechanism, because it’s simply too overwhelming to assume everyone else’s burdens.
But as compassionate human beings we must try. We must listen to these voices.
My father had a terrific insight when he observed that people are most moved by events that impact them personally.
But I can’t help thinking of a world where all people naturally sought to see how the world looks from behind the other person’s eyes. Imagine a world where everyone attempted to understand each other, and where we all accepted those differences without feeling threatened or the need to “fix” the other person.