Another summer, another moving season in Northern Virginia, a region filled with peripatetic military and federal families. Some folks, like us, move by choice—our three-bedroom townhome with no yard had become inadequate for our four small children. Others, like the family of six across the street, are compelled by their neighbors to uproot themselves.
The reason, supposedly, had to do with smoking. Several neighbors complained about the parents for puffing their “cancer sticks” on their front stoop, in their idling cars, in a small common area, and out their third-story window. These habits may indeed be a nuisance. But I suspect the neighborly complaints reveal not only the gulf between meritocrats and the working class, but also the elite’s opportunistic approach to grievance.
The most vocal of the complainants, a housewife and member of the HOA board, is neighbor to another gentleman who likewise smokes daily outside his house. Another retired gentleman, a half-dozen homes away, smokes constantly on his front stoop. Before I married and my wife moved in (and even for some years afterwards), I occasionally smoked cigarettes or pipes in a comfortable chair on our little porch. Why no complaints about any of us?
My wife, perhaps because she is the “right kind” of neighbor, was included in a group-text chat regarding the offending family. The primary complainant noted that “the board” had been trying for months to “figure out a solution.” (It wasn’t stated whether the solution was to the smoking or the smokers.) Finally, after consulting a lawyer, the board determined that the smokers could be accused of violating a community bylaw that forbids “interfer[ing] with the rights, comforts, and conveniences of other unit owners.” The violation would be second-hand smoke.
There was more to the group chat. One participant shared several surreptitiously taken photographs of the wife smoking out of her third-floor window, wearing a halter top that brought to mind P. G. Wodehouse’s comment about a woman who looked as if she had been poured into her dress and forgot to say when. “It makes me sick,” the furtive photographer noted. “Ugh, terrible,” someone responded. One participant complained that her “view” every morning was of the husband, in his pajamas, smoking outside his house. Another noted, “The wife flicks the ashes into a coke bottle . . . class act.” Another lamented, “I can’t imagine what those kids are dealing with. Parents of the year.”
Plainly, this wasn’t just about smoking. It was about class. Our neighborhood is solidly middle-, even upper-middle-class. The smokers, by contrast, are lower-class, if not in wealth, at least in manners. They do not own their townhome but rent it from a well-liked family deployed to Europe for the Department of Defense.
The wife is sometimes publicly tipsy, if not drunk, when she’s not on shift as a labor and delivery nurse. The children do no activities outside school and are awake and outside at strange hours, sometimes after 10 p.m. Some might, uncharitably, call the family “white trash.”
When I first heard about the complaints, I was torn. I too found the family annoying. One of the daughters, a middle-schooler, publicly “identifies” as bisexual and eagerly tries to share details about sexuality and the human body with my four children, all under the age of nine. Her outfits remind me of the ruckus over the 2020 French film Cuties.
Yet I felt a sympathy for the family. Not long after moving in, the mother had told my wife that she was grateful to be living in Northern Virginia rather than in the economically depressed Southern military town they had just left. “Mothers actually want their babies here.” In her new labor and delivery ward, she had yet to witness a fight between men who each claimed to be the true “baby-daddy.”
The bisexual daughter, in turn, was on anti-anxiety medication and obviously suffered social stigma for her often bizarre behavior. More than a year ago, without prompting, she had told my wife that she didn’t believe in God “because of evolution.” My wife replied that she, too, believed in evolution, but she also believed in God. Not long after, the girl asked my wife to teach her how to pray, because her father had an important evaluation at work and she was worried about him. So my wife helped her pray to God for her dad. A few days later, he passed his test.
After learning of the complaints against this plebeian household, I resolved to confront the instigator and request that she first approach the couple before taking any further action. I didn’t have that conversation fast enough—we learned from the lead complainant that the family’s lease had not been renewed by the owners, who had been warned by the board that they would be fined for the renters’ “misbehavior.”
Middle- and upper-class Americans are increasingly conflict-averse. Catechized on “safe spaces” and the dictum “words are violence,” they are uncomfortable with direct confrontation. So they lodge formal complaints. They take photos and videos of those doing bad deeds and publish them on the internet to elicit condemnation. They alert journalists to violations of woke ideology, provoking absurd media investigations. Call it “Karenism” if you like. Many Americans feel more comfortable “telling teacher” than trying to solve problems themselves.
The meritocratic class, despite its professionalism and bureaucratic training, is incompetent at conflict resolution. Indeed, many interviewers for corporate and government positions explicitly ask job candidates about their approaches to conflict, precisely because so much of the white-collar workforce struggles with it. The younger generations’ response to conflict is just what they’ve been taught by their parents and teachers: Immediately complain to an authority, the louder and more emotional the better.
When I was growing up, children were reprimanded for being tattletales. Christians are not to gossip about others or leverage the powers that be to crush their enemies. Jesus told his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). We are called to approach those with whom we have a grievance and to provide them with an opportunity to hear our complaint, accept their fault, offer an apology, and pursue reconciliation. “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all,” St. Paul exhorts (Rom. 12:18). Certainly Jesus had no problem with direct confrontation. He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocritical leadership (Matt. 23). He called his best friend “Satan” when Peter sought to discourage Jesus from his messianic mission (Matt. 16:23).
Christ also exhibited a scandalous willingness to socialize with deplorables. He ate with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10–11). Much to the confusion and consternation of his disciples, he talked with a Samaritan woman at a well in the city of Sychar (John 4:1–42). The Pharisees even argued that he was discredited by the unwashed masses’ love for him. “Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:48–49). So the elites discreetly plotted to persuade the Roman authorities that Jesus was a threat to public order and societal norms.
Perhaps social media has increased our aversion to face-to-face confrontation. That might seem counterintuitive, given that online platforms are often nothing but conflict. But it’s easier to curse and malign someone through the contrived community of digital technology. Social media not only facilitates the curation of pseudo-identities, but encourages us to view others as artificial. A few years ago, an acquaintance said some uncharitable things about me on social media without provocation. When I confronted her in person, she was surprised and defensive. It was as if she considered Facebook a screen for her bad behavior. In the anonymity of website comboxes, we find even more egregious examples of the trend toward unrestrained malice.
The leveraging of HOA and community bylaws to expel unpopular neighbors constitutes a similar operation. We can say all kinds of disparaging things about other people in a series of emails to the board, and the offending parties can only guess the identities of their detractors. “We’ve had a series of complaints” is what they’ll hear from the board—even if it’s people on the board doing the complaining. “You’re in violation of Article 8,” they’ll be told—though it won’t take a graduate degree to discern that Article 8 is applied unevenly across the neighborhood.
That’s the beauty of technocratic bureaucracy and its anonymous proceduralism. The proles are expelled, and everyone’s consciences are clean. “It wasn’t our fault they had to move,” they’ll say to each other on a summer Sunday afternoon as they drink rosé on the porch. “It’s not our fault they broke the rules by smoking and misparenting,” they’ll tell themselves. And we wonder why an aggrieved working class has embraced populism and conspiracy theories.
Casey Chalk is a contributing editor at the New Oxford Review.