Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moral Anosmia: San Francisco Edition

Recent notable incidents include a man urinating on books and another breaking a computer with a hammer.
And where might these incidents have occurred?

(A) In a state mental hospital? No—those no longer exist in our more enlightened society.

(B) In a piece of NEA-funded performance art? No—but an excellent guess.

(C) In the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library? Why, yes!

That the SF Library has become a place where people bathe in the restroom sinks, deal drugs and commit indecent exposure is not remarkable; what is remarkable is that Mayor Ed Lee has prodded the Library Commission to take action against such unpleasant and uncivil behavior. Action, that is, beyond mere verbal warning.

Among the behaviors already prohibited are bringing shopping carts into the library, sleeping on the furniture, and giving off a “strong, pervasive odor.” That last item has drawn fire from one Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“You’d have to ask the library how that would work,” she said. “Is there a senior sniffer, a supervisory sniffer, and are they the ultimate judge of what is a bad body odor? I know what I smell like when I don’t put deodorant on, and it’s not pretty.”
Ms. Friedenbach’s response is revealing on several levels. There is brazen denial; the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, smell-no-evil attitude toward BO powerful enough to clear a reading room. There is the false equivalency—the idea that a week’s worth of non-bathing and unlaundered clothes is the same thing as forgetting to put on some deodorant in the rush to get to work. There is rejection of authority: who are you to judge me or anyone else? There is the roadblock masquerading as concern for due process: she jests about supervisory sniffers, but the inevitable lawsuit against the city on behalf of the homeless will no doubt include a demand for formal appeal from unfavorable BO judgments.

In San Francisco, people can detect in their organic yogurt the residue of an altered gene in corn fed to the cow. They can get a headache from a perfumed lady in the concert hall. But somehow they cannot detect body odor strong enough to be a public nuisance. This seems to be willful blindness in the service of ideology. Perhaps we should call it moral anosmia.

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