Steve Whiddon, Looking to Destroy Bus Shelters, Instead Finds Epic Ethnomethodological Fail

Harold Garfinkel righteously, like Peter Pan, moved to rapture by his own brilliance
Vexatiously intelligent sociologist Harold Garfinkel righteously, like Peter Pan, moved to rapture by his own brilliance

Right here you can listen to the following words of wisdom from the October 23, 2014 meeting of the Hollywood Media District BID Board of Directors:

Mike Malick: Uhhh….OK. Bus stop shelter removal.
Steve Whiddon: Yeah, I think I wanted to take…uh…the temperature in the room for two…um…bus stop shelters that are…um…close to Highland and the Kodak Building. I know that they seem to be [unintelligible] placed for…uh…for some activity, um, [unintelligible] even waiting for the bus, so, have you guys discussed this before?
Unidentified Interlocutor: No.

Steve Whiddon: So would you object if I approached the people that are mostly affected like, the art gallery?
Mike Malick: Have they asked about removal?
Steve Whiddon: No, but that’s like, I’ve seen this for years as I passed by and even people waiting for the bus don’t like to wait for the bus there. They stand away from it because usually it’s…really filthy and there’s a lot of trash and there’s some activity going on in there that…uh…probably not [unintelligible] for the neighborhood so I wanna see how you guys feel about asking for their removal.
Mike Malick: Question?
Steve Whiddon: Yeah?
Unidentified Interlocutor: Um, [unintelligible] homeless people but um if you’re not a patron and you’re waiting there? Can our security maybe help [unintelligible] that you leave the stop?
Multiple unidentified interlocutors: It’s public property. [unintelligible] Steve Whiddon: They’re not doing anything illegal…[unintelligible]

And they blab on about it for a couple more minutes, but there’s a distinct lack of enthusiasm amongst the Directors for getting rid of these bus shelters. Steve Whiddon, realizing this at last, tries to step out gracefully by saying “So you guys, I’ll, I’ll find out the steps and I’ll report back to you at the next meeting. I will reach out to the property owners [unintelligible].” This incident, as banal as it may seem, requires some analysis because it was pretty much the only action item that the Board pushed back on against Steve Whiddon. What went wrong?

First we have to note that Steve Whiddon is proposing that public bus shelters on public property patronized by members of the public be destroyed because homeless people also use them. Under what conditions does one group of people destroy its own stuff to prevent use by another group? Famous examples include Nazis destroying matériel in Berlin in May 1945 so Jews wouldn’t get it, or white southern racists killing their own daughters at the end of the Civil War so negroes wouldn’t get them, or Americans destroying their own constitution because Al-Qaeda. The lesson? Groups of people only destroy their own stuff to prevent it being used by subhumans. Therefore before one can convince members of one’s group to destroy their stuff, one must convince them that the out-group people using it are subhuman. The Board’s pushback is a result of Steve Whiddon’s failure to convince them that the homeless people in the shelter are sufficiently subhuman to justify destroying the shelters.

Vexatiously brilliant sociologist Harold Garfinkel calls a procedure for doing this a “degradation ceremony,” which he defines as “[a]ny communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types.1 He gives a number of necessary conditions for such a ceremony to be successful. Where did Whiddon go wrong? Note that Garfinkel defines the perpetrator to be “the party to be denounced,” in this case the homeless people carrying out “activities” in the bus shelter, and the event to be “the thing that is being blamed on the perpetrator,” in this case their “activities,” whatever those are. The denouncer, in Garfinkel’s terminology, is Steve Whiddon and the witness is the Board of Directors. We’ll go through a selection of Garfinkel’s conditions:

  1. “Both event and perpetrator must be removed from the realm of their everyday character and be made to stand as ‘out of the ordinary.'” — Steve Whiddon failed this condition the moment he admitted that the homeless people weren’t doing anything illegal.2
  2. “…Nor will the denunciation succeed if the witness is free to look beyond the fact that he makes the selection for evidence that the correct alternative has been chosen, as, for example, by the test of empirical consequences of the choice.” — Once the Board asked Steve if the businesses had requested removal this condition wasn’t met. His bringing up the trash is also a fail here, being an empirical consequence.3
  3. “The denouncer…must not portray himself as acting according to his personal, unique experiences. He must rather be regarded as acting in his capacity as a public figure, drawing upon communally entertained and verified experience.” — Steve, you shouldn’t have said that you’d “seen it for years” but that no one else had actually complained about it. You gotta be the voice of your people, Steve.4
  4. “…the denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order, i.e., he must be defined as standing at a place opposed to it. He must be placed ‘outside,’ he must be made ‘strange.'” — This is what one of Steve’s interlocutors was getting at when asking if it were possible to separate paying bus customers from the homeless in the shelter and thereby have Captain John Irigoyen’s Green Gestapo get rid of them. He wanted a way to distinguish the homeless from everyone else so that they could be moved out. No distinction was forthcoming. The bus-riders and the homeless are like us after all. They’re not doing anything illegal and they’re on public property.5

Garfinkel concludes that “[t]hese are the conditions that must be fulfilled for a successful denunciation. If they are absent, the denunciation will fail. Regardless of the situation when the denouncer enters, if he is to succeed in degrading the other man, it is necessary to introduce these features.” Steve, study hard, and someday you’ll learn how to successfully denounce people, which will give you super-powers. Every student needs a teacher, though, Steve. If you want a series of lessons in successful degradation ceremonies, we can think of no better source for you than this blog. Successful degradation ceremonies are our bread and butter around here, Steve. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.6

  1. This and other quotes from Garfinkel come from the sublimely influential Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies. Harold Garfinkel. Am. J. Soc. 61(5) March 1956. pp. 420-424
  2. This is Garfinkel’s first condition.
  3. This is part of Garfinkel’s condition 2B.
  4. This is part of Garfinkel’s condition 3.
  5. This is part of Garfinkel’s condition 8.
  6. This isn’t Garfinkel so much as it is Jesus instead: Matt. 11:15 to be precise.

Image of Harold Garfinkel by Arlene Garfinkel, released under a CC BY 3.0 license, obtained via the gracious courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation

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