Recently, I wrote a provocative Op-Ed about the Seattle Freeze, and I received the digital equivalent of a biblical stoning for stepping into the public square with a less than polite message. [“The ‘Seattle Freeze’ has me plotting my escape,” Sept. 14, Opinion]. I regret the edginess of my words and understand the defensiveness around an outsider challenging the culture of a place. Aside from the vitriol, the outcome of the piece has been fascinating. More than 30 people reached out to me via social media to offer support, humor, a cup of coffee, dinner and more conversation about the complexity of Seattle. I’ve met some wonderful folks and, yes, that alters my view as an individual, but my concern is community.
The original article wasn’t about my social isolation. I’m a happy person with wonderful family and friends, most of whom live elsewhere. The intention of writing about the Freeze was not to get invited to parties. It was about asking Seattleites to understand the effect of this disconnected culture on the social fabric of this beautiful place, to be willing to do some soul-searching about a closed-down emotional climate. In addition to conscious isolation, Seattle’s swift and harsh social judgments reinforce the illusion of a progressive culture, a nonexistent mantle Seattleites wear with pride. Newcomers learn quickly what not to say because appropriateness, not authenticity, is rewarded. I had a conversation with a guy from South Africa who’s lived in the U.S. for decades and moved here from the Bay Area:
“I play the immigrant card in Seattle all the time,” he said, “That way I get lots of sympathy. But if I say I’m from California …”
He rolled his eyes. We learn to be quiet.
But how newcomers feel and act is small potatoes compared to the pretense of being “woke” when so many are left behind. A truly progressive region would never tolerate the outcomes we see in Seattle in areas like housing and education.
The rising cost of living and displacement is driving more immigrants and minorities to housing south of Seattle, highlighting the economic redlining of the region. In public schools the discrepancies are stark: contrast 74.6% of white students who met state standards in math, with 27.4% of black students; 90.5% of white students passed all ninth-grade courses while 65.3% of black students met that standard. You can’t crow about how progressive Seattle is if we leave our black students in the dust and push the marginalized further to the margins. If the communal expression of this place is shutdown isolationism, how will these social issues ever be addressed?
In my diatribe about lack of connection, I found what I was looking for: deeply caring people who focus on service to others. I met philanthropists and volunteers, teachers and retirees who know that action matters, that lip service to social change is never enough. Just one example is Nancy McPherson, who steers an annual Day of Service that deploys more than 1,000 volunteers into the community. I met McPherson and others when her friend invited me to dinner for deeper conversation around the “Freeze.” I feel more connected and less inclined to flee as soon as possible.
The 30 folks who reached out to me didn’t use the online invectives around me being bitter, miserable, lonely, lazy and racist. They just took the time to show compassion, and that makes a real difference in my experience of Seattle. My beef has never been with individual people but the culture of aloneness that seems accepted as a way of life. Here’s an online comment from the original piece that says it well:
“I am a native of Seattle, a blend of introvert and extrovert, and have experienced the Freeze my entire life. The comments here reflect a shortsighted disdain for the social ‘third place’ or ‘commons’ in which strangers become friends with ease. The wish for people to make eye contact, say hello, and make conversation is not ‘neediness,’ it is what holds a society together. It is where human warmth and spiritual wisdom come together to build a village rather than a metropolis of disengaged individuals living alone in cubes.”
For the good of the whole village, we should try to break the ice.