By Alex Pemberton
If you live in a place that is struggling, declining, or facing serious challenges, you've almost certainly heard it said in response to pointed critiques:
"If you hate it so much, why don't you just leave?"
"You can't complain if you're not working to fix it."
Or any of the other various forms of the "Love It or Leave It" mentality. Of all the ways to ensure the continued decline of a place, this mentality is perhaps the most effective.
Love It or Leave It is not a defense of the castle; it is burying your head in the sand.
If you're one of those people who defends your home by telling its critics to either learn to love it or leave, take a second to stop and ask yourself: What is the preferred outcome of such a statement?
A half-empty shell of a city populated only by sycophants who choose to ignore its flaws? Do you really want more people to choose to leave a place that is already struggling because so many people are choosing to leave? Do you want them to stop caring, preferring apathy to critique? Or do you really just want them to shut up and not trouble you with the notion that perhaps the place you love is imperfect?
Do you really think a few critics moving away will make your city better?
As the resurgence of civic pride in Wichita has reached its maturity phase -- Wichita flag t-shirts are now sold in grocery stores for ten dollars, after all -- there have increasingly been people who have started openly questioning whether all this flag-waving and cheerleading is warranted. (Full disclosure: I've been one of them.) And in response, there have increasingly been people telling them to love it or leave it.
This critical assessment is not borne of myopic negativity, but reality.
In the midst of all this Wichita Pride (TM), the city has in many ways declined. There are fewer jobs in Wichita today than there were at this time last year; in fact, the labor force in Wichita today is smaller than it was two decades ago. Net migration remains negative, with more people moving away from Wichita than are moving in. Real personal income is declining. Our economy is under-performing, even when accounting for our manufacturing-heavy industrial structure.
The stories we're telling ourselves just simply are not true, at least not at a macro-level, and people are wising up to the cognitive dissonance. They are demanding a civic pride supported by substance.
The shifting mood is hardly limited to online comments sections. Local retailers have taken up an inside joke -- "Put a Flag on It" -- as a sardonic way of highlighting what is fast becoming one of Wichita's greatest challenges: for all the flag-waving and vocalized pride, there is remarkably little tangible support or improvement. Locals won't buy regular products or services from their neighbors' small businesses, unless it has a Wichita flag on it.
The flag is a symbol of pride. It is not (or at least, it should not be) the basis for our pride. What are we, as a city and as a collective of its citizens, actually proud of and how can we leverage those tangible characteristics to create more pride? What would make us even more proud to live in this city and call ourselves Wichitans?
Instead of telling people who don't love Wichita to shut up or get the f*** out, maybe ask the people who say they love Wichita, "Why?"
There's #NothingToDoHere (and there won't be, as long as we keep blowing it off)
Of course, there are certain complaints that are simply not legitimate or productive. Here in Wichita, in the heart of the Great Plains, if your chief criticism is that we lack mountains or a beach... then you should absolutely move to somewhere with mountains or a beach. Wichita will never meet your highest aspirations.
Likewise, there are some people who are simply just unhappy people and, to paraphrase from my favorite novel, they won't get away from themselves by moving somewhere else.
And yes, it is frustrating to hear criticism from those without clear solutions, but it's important to understand that in complex and dynamic systems like cities, there are never clear, silver bullet solutions. More importantly, there are exceedingly few people who have attained the alchemy of authority, ability, connections, and charisma to make cataclysmic change happen; this does not delegitimize their critiques. Sometimes the most a person is truly capable of doing to create positive change is to encourage leaders to follow the Obama Doctrine: don't do stupid shit.
But geography is hardly the only criticism that is met with "Love It or Leave It" in response, and hermits are hardly the only messengers. Often, those criticisms are not only legitimate, but extremely important.
Wichita will never have mountains or an ocean, but it is well within its potential and capabilities to have many of the things Wichitans criticize their city for lacking. These are opportunities for improvement.
When someone utters that well-worn phrase, "There's nothing to do in Wichita," instead of telling them to go somewhere else, maybe consider what would make them happy. Understand that "nothing to do here" has not become Wichita's most pervasive cultural meme out of the ignorance or sheer stupidity of the people who say it, but because it might just be true. Look at all the studies that back it up -- that Wichita is lacking in social offerings and has a quality of life on par with Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio.
There's nothing to do here is not a criticism. It is a desire for more and better. Instead of writing it off as a complaint unworthy of legitimate response, perhaps use it as a chance to identify opportunities. What is Wichita missing?
When someone without a plan identifies a problem, try helping them identify and understand skills they possess to create positive change. Everyone has a skill they can apply to improving their place, no matter how small the results. It's a helluva lot better to encourage those people to exercise those skills here than it is to encourage them to take those skills elsewhere.
Love It or Leave It is not a solution. It is a cop-out intended only to stifle expression of real, meaningful perspectives.
Stop Defending and Start Listening
Complaints about a lack of entertainment options are hardly the only criticisms of Wichita, of course. There are all those damn construction cones. There are unnecessarily-subsidized chicken restaurants. There are the mountains of trash in our river and the knee-high weeds in our parks. Every city has things to complain about.
Other cities have complaints about affordable housing, or school bond issues... or lead-poisoned tap water, for Christ's sake.
There is often a temptation to compare the complaints about Wichita to the complaints of other cities and think that we have it pretty good. Of course, I wouldn't trade Wichita's challenges for the challenges of Flint, Michigan, and neither would you.
You may even prefer the challenges of Wichita to the challenges of dynamic and successful places like Austin, Texas, which is dealing with exploding housing costs and gridlocked traffic, or Charlotte, North Carolina, which is struggling with lingering racial tensions, social inequity, and economic immobility.
But what sets apart successful cities -- and struggling cities with the capability to course-correct -- is a willingness to confront their challenges, engage in critical debate, and commit to overcoming them. And they combine that openness with the humility to shut up and listen.
In successful cities, critical debate is not avoided, but encouraged. Successful cities do not cut off public questions to keep from hearing passionate dissent, even if it means that meetings run long past midnight. Successful cities do not create, and certainly do not enable, a culture among their leaders and proponents in which valid and legitimate critiques are met with ultimatums; they put their own opinions on pause and listen to those with differences in search of understanding.
Successful cities lay down their swords and listen.
Wichita: you would be amazed what would happen, and how many more people would love you, if only you would listen.
Here's Your Pre-Packaged, Silver-Bullet Solution
So when people cry out for more transparency in economic development incentives, or that they've run out of new and exciting entertainment, or that they really weren't pleased with the approach taken to get that new park built... stop ignoring, stop defending, and listen.
Because when people with the insight to recognize deficiencies and ask for better are met with Love It or Leave It, what they hear is, "We don't care what will make you satisfied and we don't care about you." Telling people who see problems and hold the potential to provide solutions to shut up or move will not inspire them to love their city and it will not shame them into silence.
But it will, to many of them, cause them to question why they would stay in a place that doesn't care about providing a good experience for its people. It will, over time and with repetition, inspire them to move to somewhere that will listen to them and act.
And isn't more people deciding to Leave It the last thing Wichita needs?