Let’s attend Under the Tent and not use NIMBY | Guest Viewpoint

Jaisri Lingappa
Posted 8/17/22

In the August 2022 City of Port Townsend newsletter, City Manager John Mauro pointed out the importance of explaining acronyms.

In that spirit, I would like to bring up a problematic acronym that …

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Let’s attend Under the Tent and not use NIMBY | Guest Viewpoint

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In the August 2022 City of Port Townsend newsletter, City Manager John Mauro pointed out the importance of explaining acronyms.

In that spirit, I would like to bring up a problematic acronym that merits discussion in advance of the Aug. 18 “Under the Tent” event on Housing: Policy, Partnerships, and Community Engagement. I am not in favor of censoring anyone’s use of language, but I am in favor of getting people to think about the meaning of their words and the importance of promoting substantive dialogue on policy rather than name-calling.  

The acronym I am concerned about is NIMBY, which, taken at face value, means “Not in my back yard.” 

Before you use the term NIMBY, I would ask you to please think through the two points listed below. If, after you read these points, you still want to use the term NIMBY, that’s fine — just be aware of what some people will be thinking.  

Here are two reasons to not use the word NIMBY:

1. First, note that the term is almost always used as a pejorative, essentially as name-calling. Given that, think about how name-calling in general has a long history that has often been tied to racism and misogyny, as hopefully everyone knows. Name-calling is also what children do as part of bullying in the school yard.  

I realize NIMBY has become a common term in some areas of our political discourse - but that was exactly the excuse that people gave when racial and misogynist slurs were commonplace in everyday language: Oh, it’s just a term everyone uses, no offense intended, lighten up. But no matter how common a derogatory term is, it still has the effect of demeaning a group of people. As a woman of color, I personally know how effective this is for discouraging participation of large groups of people. 

Name-calling serves the purpose of distracting us away from real dialogue by substituting derogatory slurs in place of sentences and paragraphs that describe actual proposals for solutions. Even when you provide serious policy side-by-side with name-calling, the slur is what catches everyone’s attention — it sticks in our heads, raises emotions, generates more heat than light, and keeps us from using critical thinking to evaluate everything else you said. Keep in mind that a certain former President invented derogatory nicknames for everyone — that was his trick for always getting the headlines and distracting people away from thinking about the impact of his policies. Is that the role model we should adopt?  He used name-calling to demean, degrade, dehumanize, and most importantly, to intimidate — using the term NIMBY has the same effect.

2. Secondly, think about what the phrase “Not in my back yard” (NIMBY) actually states. 

Is there anything you do not want in your backyard? Do you support folks who protest against dangerous coal trains going through their towns? How would you feel if fracking came to a community you lived in? How about big box stores that would put locally-owned enterprises out of business?  

Or to bring this close to home: How about nationwide corporations making money for their investors by selling houses in Port Townsend that are three times more expensive than people working in the economy can afford?  Depending on where you live, objections to any of those things being in your backyard could result in someone calling you a NIMBY — and if you have used that term to denigrate others, you will have lost the moral high ground.  

What the local affordable housing community needs is in-depth conversations about data, policy, and action, not the distraction of name-calling. If individuals engage in dialogue without using any slurs, they might find that the person they were about to call a NIMBY has concerns that merit consideration. By not calling people who have concerns derogatory names, we could get them to express their reservations, which in turn might give us all ideas for how to improve the policies being proposed. Conversely, if someone uses the term NIMBY, hasn’t that person just said that any critique of their plan is unacceptable?  

In summary, this is a plea meant for our entire community — including our housing advocates and our city and county leaders. I urge all of us to stop using the term NIMBY (and its corollary YIMBY, which implies blanket acquiescence without deeper thought), and instead turn our ideas into substantive proposals. I realize that is hard work, but it holds the promise of getting us all to a better and more informed place on critical issues like affordable housing.  

Finally, I hope you all will join me and others at the Aug. 18 “Under the Tent” event to share ideas for how to meet our housing challenges. I will be listening for proposals that will help our community create homes that are affordable for people working in our local economy, homes that start affordable and stay affordable through innovative policy implementation and stewardship. 

I look forward to discussing how we will house our nurses, teachers, public utility workers, civil servants, grocery clerks, marine trades folks, artists, nonprofit professionals, and others. What I hope not to hear is name-calling. Let’s make the choice to use language that is inclusive and allows space for learning and questioning.    

(Jaisri Lingappa is a retired University of Washington research scientist and global health professor who lives in Port Townsend. She volunteers locally with the Housing Solutions Network and Habitat for Humanity East Jefferson County and is a supporter of the Olympic Housing Trust.)

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  • CodexSeraphinianus

    Well written and thought out and I support this. More education rather than name calling and exclusion for differing beliefs. Honestly was starting to feel like not many people preferred this based on the latest behaviors. Always down to learn and hope others would be too. Thank you JL

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