Calhoun’s Cannons ,The Bay News, Morro Bay, CA for May 23, 2007
It is one of the phenomena of human nature that once an opinion gets a popular start and becomes rooted in the mind of the public at large, it is next to impossible to uproot it or kill it off. It may be proved over and over again that the opinion is not entirely true or even that it is entirely false, and the public at large will listen to the proof and go right on believing in the opinion as before.
James Weldon Johnson, 1919
Mr. Johnson’s comment appeared in a recent Letter To The Editor shortly after the May 10th Regional Water Quality Control Board’s meeting at which the Board suddenly decided --- finally – to “stand down,” stop cruelly, pointlessly and wastefully prosecuting The Los Osos 45, and hold off on issuing Clean Up And Abatement Orders to the rest of the community, for now.
The tipping point of a year-long horror show came suddenly when Board member Dr. Press electrified the whole room by simply asking a few questions and making a few comments and observations that should have been asked over a year ago. His comments also gave a kind of permission to the other Board members to weigh in and suddenly a gust of sanity and real-world practicality – totally absent in the previously Blind Mad Hatter Tea Party Proceedings -- blew through the room and instantly, The Story changed completely.
And what was The Story? It consisted of two-words that had been carefully framed, endlessly repeated and used to define this community for years: Los Osos was “Anti-Sewer.” That was The Story that allowed outsiders and many within the community to conjure up a town full of ignorant, cheap, willful, insane, Luddite, lawbreaking Moonbeam McSwines gleefully rolling around in millions of gallons of raw sewage that ran down their streets to pollute the Bay, happily drinking their own urine, poisoning the environment, threatening the health and safety of the good people of San Luis Obispo and “fighting the Water Board” (another false story) every step of the way.
As a Story, it was perfect because it was easy to understand, it compressed a terribly complicated issue into a few quick buzz-words, it avoided the annoying but vital complexity that results in heeding the famous semanticist S.I. Hayakawa’s dictum that for factual clarity we need always remember that Object/Situation/Person A is not Object/Situation/Person B is not Object/Situation/Person C, it blinded everyone, most particularly the regulators who should have been better informed, to the difficult and multifaceted reality on the ground, it was false, and its falsity led to totally inappropriate, wasteful and disastrous actions that the community will pay dearly for.
Which is what happens when you get The Story wrong.
Worse yet, The Story became so powerful by its repetition that it became impossible for reality to break through. It did that because nobody bothered to define the terms or even check to see if they were accurate or even true. For example, the two words used to repeatedly define this community are the words “Anti-Sewer.” Those words appeared again and again in the Tribune’s pages, in on-air news reports, in endless Letters To The Editor, but what exactly do they mean?
The small handful of citizens who believe that the community doesn’t need any kind of centralized or cluster wastewater treatment systems and can continue using their traditional on-site septic systems were correctly labeled “Anti-Sewer.” But so were citizens who simply opposed putting a sewer plant in the middle of their town. They were also labeled Anti-Sewer, even though what they actually wanted was to MOVE the sewer plant, not eliminate it. People who thought a STEP system with a different water-reuse component would be better than the proposed Tri-W gravity system were called Anti-Sewer. People who voted for Measure B were called Anti-Sewer when what they were was I-Want-A-Vote-On-The-Type-And-Placement-Of-A-Sewer. Even people who supported Tri W but simply wanted a homeowner’s 218 vote on the increased costs were labeled Anti-Sewer. Forty-five residents were targeted as Anti-Sewer and had a year of their lives ruined by a Water Board that was told The Story, a board that never bothered to verify the truth or falsity of that Story, and so viewed these citizens as worthy of punishment in order to set them as an example to the rest of this obstructionist, scofflaw, “Anti-Sewer” town.
After all, what else can you do when you falsely believe you’re dealing with a community full of batty Moonbeam McSwines?
Mr. Johnson knew well the power of the narrative, understood that Perception IS Reality, understood that he who controls the narrative defines the issues and controls the outcome. Against a powerful false narrative, mere facts cannot prevail. Ask the wrong questions and you’ll get the wrong answers. Frame the wrong problem and you’ll get the wrong solution. Get The Story wrong, and you will pay a fearsome price. Eighty-eight years later, Los Osos is finally just finding that out.