Small Towns and Tolerance

February 11, 2014

                In one of the most memorable bull sessions of my freshman year, the guy who lived across the hall said that he didn’t believe that he had ever known anyone who had died.  I was flabbergasted.   I absolutely could not believe that this could be possible.   I protested.  He said that he thought maybe one of his elementary school teachers was dead now, but he wasn’t sure.

                I grew up in a small town. In a small town, you know not only your classmates, but your classmates’ parents and their grandparents and their uncles and their aunts.  You know everybody who is a part of that community, the old as well as the young.   I had known probably a hundred people who had died. I had known two people who had been murdered, and I had known at least 20 people who had been killed in car accidents—a result of the combination, I suppose, of random chance and the phenomenal motor vehicle death rates of the 1950s and early 1960s.  I had had relatives who had died, grandparents and aunts and uncles, and those yet closer to me.  I had known suicides and people who died in house fires.  You grow up in a small town, you know—and actually know—maybe a thousand people.   Some of them are old people, and they die; it’s a normal thing.  Somebody in the community would die once every two weeks, and we would have a normal conversation around the supper table—should we go to the funeral, or do we not need to?

                The guy across the hall, on the other hand, had grown up in the suburbs, surrounded by kids his own age.  He "knew" hundreds of kids his own age, although of course he didn’t really know them.  He "knew" the people in his neighborhood, but they were mostly people his parents’ age, and, in truth, he didn’t really know them, either—not in the way that you know people in a small town, where you see a person one week in the grocery store, and the next week at the post office, and the next week at a basketball game, and the next week at their work place, and the next week at a funeral, until after 18 years of this you have come to see the fabric of their lives, and to understand how it is woven into the community.  His family (he being the guy across the hall). .. his family was small and did not live near to him, so he didn’t really know his cousins, if he had any.

                Extreme, perhaps; I would assume that most of you who grew up in suburbs knew at least a few people who died during your youth, and I would assume that people who grow up in small towns today probably don’t go to regularly scheduled funerals, as we did in my youth. But it struck me then—and it strikes me now—how poorly his youth had prepared him for life.

                Almost anyone who looked at his education and my education would conclude that his education was far better.  He came to college better prepared than I did to do college-level work in math or science, better prepared to write papers that a col’ge perfesser would like. His parents had raised him in a safe and protected environment, with access to the best public schools in the state.

                But at the same time, his education was missing something terribly important—perhaps more important than the edyakation itself. His education was great—but his childhood had not prepared him for Life.  He had no view of the arc of a man’s life.  He had no sense of what it meant to be older, and thus no real understanding of what it meant to be young. He only knew people who were very much like him, and thus lacked real insight into himself, even the limited insight you might have when you are 18. In terms of being prepared to fight through hard times, being ready to face challenges that were off the grid, being ready to cope with loss and thus understanding the urgency of time. . .my education was far better than his.

                But this essay is not about small towns and education; it is about small towns and tolerance.  City people tend to see themselves as being tolerant and accepting, and tend to assume that small-town people are less tolerant and less accepting of others who are different.  In certain ways this is true.  Small town people will cling to old ideas and old beliefs, including prejudices and presumptions that they would be better off without.

                But in other ways, small town people are much more open and accepting than city folk, simply because it is a community.  It has borders, in a sense, and you have to deal with everybody within the borders whether you like them or not.  In most cases you learn to like them; you learn to see the good in them.

                It has to do with what I talked about yesterday, about selectivity in mating.  A small town person moves to a city, at first he/she tries by instinct or long habit to be open and accepting of everyone in the city.   This is exhausting, unrewarding, and makes you vulnerable.  You begin to close down a little, to start looking for people like yourself.  After you’ve been there a year, you have a circle of people you associate with, normally young people somewhat like yourself.  You start to filter out those people who don’t meet your criteria—people of the wrong age, people whose background is not like yours, people whose interests are not like yours, people who do not know the slang that you use, people who do not know how to dress the way you are supposed to dress.  You avoid people whose manners are not the right manners.  After you’ve been in the city for twenty or thirty years—assuming that you are a successful person—you have a tight circle of friends, people your age, people who work in your field or related fields, people who have similar interests and life experiences, and you don’t realize that the circle has closed.

                In a small town, the same social events are attended by the lawyers and the bus drivers, by the grocery store clerks and by the mayor and the minister and the real estate agent. In a small town, the rich kids and the poor kids deal with one another every day, and very often they get to like one another, and not infrequently they marry one another and bond into a family.   In a small town, you have social events which are attended by 18-year-olds and 70-year-olds.   In a small town the same social events are attended by the liberals and the conservatives, by the gays and the conservative Christians.  The same social events are attended by people who have very high standards of personal hygiene, and by people who haven’t taken a bath in a week.  A city person tends to look at it like "this is a horrible party."  These people are in no way cool, or hip, or sophisticated, or whatever it is he would like them to be.

                The city person moving to a small town tends to look, by instinct or long habit, for people who are like himself.  He tends not to find them—certainly not the people who are as much like himself as he would find in a city.   He tends, by long habit, to pay no attention to people who are not of his age group, not of his background, not of his income status, and not of his interests.  He feels excluded from the life of the small town—not because he is excluded or has been excluded, but because he has excluded himself by the selectivity—the intolerance—of his vision.

                My brother was a rather cranky, distant person, not easy to get to know and not too easy to like.  When he was in high school, he somehow developed a close friendship with an old man who lived across town who was notoriously grouchy, a quiet, somber man with whom I had never exchanged so much as a greeting; I forget his name now.   He would go over to this old man’s house a couple of nights a week and watch television.  None of us knew how these two became friends; I guess they liked the same TV shows.  We could easily see what they had in common, but how they stumbled into a friendship—since neither of them was at all friendly by nature—was always a mystery.   I suppose that happens in cities, as well, that old men and young occasionally become friends.

                The social amalgam of a small town does tend to enforce conformity at the edges, and thus does create a certain kind of intolerance.  When you have 18-year-olds and 70-year-olds at the same social event, nobody is smoking pot.  When you have extremely conservative people and extremely liberal people in the same room, gathered to have fun, people keep their political opinions to themselves.

                In my family I have both conservative Christians and gay people, and it is not uncommon to have them both at the same picnic.  I have had representatives from both sides in my house at the same time, and many times.   The Christians do judge the gays, and the gays do judge the Christians, but it is my observation, for what it is worth, that the gays are much more harshly judgmental of the Christians than the Christians are of the gays.

In the same way that an urban school touches all of the registered elements of a good education, but sometimes leaves out fundamental life lessons, small town people tend to be intolerant in some theoretical, paint-by-numbers way, but very tolerant in practice.  Small town people will accept you if you don’t dress right, if you don’t talk right, if you have eccentric habits or oddball hobbies, or even if your personal habits are not what they perhaps should be.  You can still fit in, in a small town, even if you have your ways.   In a city, not so much; in a city you are much more likely to be judged and rejected, told in subtle ways that you do not measure up.


COMMENTS (45 Comments, most recent shown first)

I have a house in what I'd call the sophisticated, urbane, capital of the world, Aspen, Colorado. I have another about 300 miles away that my parents have a ranch at, Hugo, Colorado. They are about the same size--and they are a billion light years apart. One is filthy rich (it has the third richest zip code in the US) while Hugo is a very poor ranching community that has a county with an annual budget approaching less than $10 million. I like to think that I'm objective enough to make an impartial observation about both. I can say that Aspen people are not as dumb as people think they ought to be. You hear all the time, someone in an outlying community say, "I'm going to start a business where I make money off all these dumb rich people". That's complete nonsense. My dad made a very smart point when he said that, "Rich people didn't get rich by making dumb decisions with their money".

They do claim to be more tolerant of minorities and consider themselves to be far more progressive. Both claims are only partially true if you think that voting trends are directly related to actions. The people in Aspen are much more likely to vote to legalize gay marriage, than say, the people in Hugo. However, I don't think that means they are "better" people. It's one thing to give away money to those less fortunate than you or vote to level the playing field for others if you have a lot of money. It's another thing entirely to be one meal away from starving yourself and to give money to the church. The book, "Who Gives?" touches on this very point. It turns out that by and large, God-fearing, church-going, white, protestant, families with less money (i.e. the people liberals don't like) give more money to charity than any other group in the world. Church programs, like the ones you see in Hugo, give more money proportionally than wine tasting Spotted Owl benefits in Aspen. Which one do you think is considered more enlightened however? Sure, you don't have the "cool" people at church functions. The people in Hugo are either obese or the type of skinny born from years of malnutrition and tobacco. They are not "beautiful" in the traditional sense. But yet they are more willing to accept those outside of their social circle than the people in Aspen. Want proof? How many gated communities do you see--even amongst the really rich farmers in farming communities?

Politically, the two are completely different. Aspen is one of the most liberal parts of Colorado--Hugo one of the most conservative. It's easy to laugh at, or assume that Hugo is wrong politically because the people their believe that God sent his only son to die on a cross. However, is it any more ludicrous than to assume that people who believe in the wise old American Indian (don't call them anything but Native Americans in their presence, thank you) and Arbor Day disciples are any more naive? After all, those people believe in the powers of Yogism and Hindu Buddhism to say nothing of the fact that the American Indian was more in touch with God despite the fact that they hadn't even invented the wheel and were the first practitioners of slash-and-burn agriculture (oh, and of course, they used every part of every part of the buffalo--even though white settlers were aghast when they first came across the hundreds of bloated buffalo carcasses left on the plains to rot after the dead Indians realized they had killed too many to carry.

Today however it's swung the other way so that things are more cool when they come from a non-traditional (read: anti-White) demographic if you believe these people. Proof? County fairs are stupid but Earth Day festivals are enlightened. Using your mineral rights to farm for gems and precious stones in Aspen is considered brilliant...but using those same rights to frack should be illegal in Hugo. Wearing a cowboy hat to cover your neck from sunburns means you're a Okie-shitkicker...but wearing a bhurka is Aspen means we should all understand your enlightened culture. Meth in Hugo is a real problem. Cocaine in Aspen? That's the cherry on top of a sundae living the good life. The real problem in Aspen and the surrounding area is that people leave a state (usually California) to escape all the problems associated with that state and then they move to a small town and then say, "This is the way we've always done things where I'm from". In Hugo, that doesn't happen because almost moves there. As a result it never changes politically.

At the end of the day, just because you live in a poor part of the country and you traditional beliefs about what a family should be in this country doesn't mean that you want to see Michael Sam fail as a football player. Just because you don't want to see inner-city black men milk the system with a "broken back" doesn't mean that you think America is only for white men. There is middle ground with both towns. There are liberals in Hugo and conservative bohemians in Aspen.
6:01 PM Apr 5th
David Kowalski
Political views to tend to develop with age but not always. My nephew wsent off to college (also in Florida, though) and has yet to change his political opinions. His big change was to choose to use his middle name, Xavier. Xavier Kowalski.

My two best friends from high school maintained the same political views. However, others did change. This was in a suburban town of 54,000 people.

My current suburban town of 7,000 fits your model. The town's marriage statistics fit your profile and so do the people I know. The furthest away this went was a neighbor who met her husband in a bar in another town but was living in a small town at the time. I'm not sure where the bar was located but her future husband was living maybe 10 to 15 miles away.
6:44 PM Feb 18th
This article is very thought provoking. I grew up in a small town of 11,000 people and now I live in a city. People in the small town knew each other much better than people in a city or a suburb would know each other. I remember that we did not lock the house when we left to go to the store. If one knows people better, then one tends to look at the whole person rather than focusing on what might be considered a fault. In that sense, people in small towns might be more tolerant. I don't believe that people in small towns are less tolerant of specific faults, but they tend to put them in context better so that they are less likely to villefy people that they know.
11:38 AM Feb 17th
"but I think it's safe to posit that in small groups of those you need to get along with on a daily basis, there will be less discussion of controversial issues than in a large group of people who don't know each other very well on a personal level. Is that a fair statement?"

No. A) It seems backward, and B) I don't understand at all its relevance to the topic of small towns.

Perhaps this is dragging the discussion backward, but I would say this: That small towns do LESS to enforce conformity of thought than do cities.

In the small town where I grew up I knew MANY outspoken atheists. A man named Wade West lived a couple of blocks from us, and was close to our family. His son married my sister. Wade was a very charismatic man, extremely well liked, but Wade absolutely despised religion and would say so pretty often. This was never any issue to anybody. I can even remember Wade being at church socials on a few occasions; the attitude was that the mere fact that he hated religion was no reason to exclude him from a church social event.

One thing we haven't touched on here that may be holding us back is the different ways that young people perceive the world from mature people. VERY young people do not have political or cultural opinions, and young people, when they first develop political and cultural opinions, may not feel free to express those. It may be, for many people, that when they go away to college, that is the first time they feel that freedom, and that they associate that freedom with being away from their home--when in reality, while being away from home is central to the issue--it isn't the "home" part that matters but the "being away" part. Young people could project their own internal strictures onto the environment in which they grow up, and conclude that that environment is much more restrictive--much less tolerant--than it actually is.
9:59 AM Feb 17th
Steven Goldleaf
Bill, I wasn't meaning to suggest that small town folks NEVER discuss politics--I'm sure they do. But, personally, I try to discuss controversial subjects in impersonal contexts, usually meaning large ones. My college roommate and I quickly realized we couldn't discuss our religious views without creating discord (atheist/evangelical fundamentalist) so we declared that topic off-base, but I certainly felt free to discuss my views in a college-wide setting. This past Thanksgiving and Xmas, I read an awful lot of advice on how to have a good family dinner: STFU about sensitive topics, and resist the urge to defend or even discuss your own views, however provoked you feel. It's hard to generalize too freely here, but I think it's safe to posit that in small groups of those you need to get along with on a daily basis, there will be less discussion of controversial issues than in a large group of people who don't know each other very well on a personal level. Is that a fair statement? Steven​
6:43 AM Feb 17th
I suspect that we all see this from our individual perspectives, which means what we all have to offer are anecdotes. And, as I learned in stat class in grad school, the plural of "anecdotes" is *not* "data." So, my anecdotes.

I was born in a small town (Frankfort, Indiana), but moved at age 4 to a city (Indianapolis), where we lived in a neighborhood which (in retrospect) seemed a lot like a small town. We knew almost everyone within walking distance of our home, for example. I attended my first funeral at age 6 (my father's father); the first person I really knew (it's no exaggeration to say that my grandfather didn't think it was worthwhile to get to know his grandchildren) who died was a classmate from the 5th grade--he died of leukemia. And a friend in 8th grade shot himself in the park. But...almost everyone was white (my high school--2,400 students--had maybe a half dozen black students; I graduated in 1965; Indianapolis schools were still pretty segregated then). Almost everyone was nominally christian (as far as I know, there was one Jewish kid in my high school class, with whom I argued constantly--about politics). And no one was openly gay.

In college (and grad school), I knew people from small towns, who were mostly glad to have gotten out. I attended a small, highly selective, liberal arts college (in a small town), and the people from small towns, at least the ones I knew well, had felt like aliens in those small towns, and like they had finally found a place where they belonged. (Which, oddly, is also how I felt, coming from a fairly large city.) A disproportionate number of us wound up in academia, which is, I would suggest, not surprising.

Subsequently, I lived in one small town (not for very long), where our lives centered on the college at which I taught. So that was not a typical small-town experience. I lived in medium-sized towns (Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Normal, IL), where again our lives were bound up with the universities at which I taught. Then I lived in Chicago for almost 30 years. And there, our lives mostly revolved around people we worked with or the people who lived in our high-rise (condo) building.

But in a sense I have lived my life in a very weird "small town" atmosphere, the colleges and universities where I have lived. We all knew everyone--faculty, staff, students. We socialized a lot within that community. We went to weddings and funerals. And there was a shared set of values and principles, and, frankly, a lot of us had difficulty with people who were "outsiders."

But I also don't think any generalizations can be drawn from my experience.

8:06 PM Feb 15th
(Sorry; my comment was intended for "Small Towns and Mating," and I wasn't paying enough attention.)​
7:34 PM Feb 15th
A (somewhat left-wing) British economist on changes in marriage patters--including declining rates of marriage in the UK and the US--which is at least tangentially related to some parts of this discussion (did I hedge that enough?):
7:29 PM Feb 15th
Yorobert sez, "jemanji-you are seriously going to use our sad human history as a precedent for what is right?"

Yes, I am seriously going to assume that the rest of the world has accumulated some knowledge, and that nobody appointed me dictator of Planet Earth.

The implied arrogance is breathtaking. "The Chinese dynasties were run by morons; the Greek sophists were morons; the Pharaohs of Egypt were morons; the primitive tribes and Native Americans were morons.

"Nothing they say counts, as it applies to my hot issue. Whatever the Harvard faculty AND I are saying today, that is what counts."

This is what we mean by the arrogance of liberalism. Conservatives do, in fact, have a certain respect for those who come from different viewpoints.


4:41 PM Feb 15th
The bill that just overwhelmingly passed the Kansas House of Representatives certainly seems to conflict with your take on small-town tolerance.
2:47 PM Feb 15th
come on. they are NOT denouncing morality, they are denouncing the person's definition of morality. your words assume that there is a single definition for what is moral, and that is untenable. "stop the moralizing" means that there is a disagreement over what is moral and what is not. it does NOT mean "there is no such thing as moral and immoral". if a bible-thumper denounces gays, or muslims, or drug use (rather, drug use from the unauthorized and unapproved list), and someone says "stop the moralizing", he is NOT denouncing morality-this is patently obvious. he is saying that he disagrees that those people/actions are immoral.

absolutely, religious people are the worst offenders at telling people how to live their lives, and making judgements as to what is "acceptable" behavior, and they have that religious chip on their shoulder-you know, they speak for their god, after all. i was wrong to say they are the only people to do it, they are just the worst. that's the point you wish to score-my short-sighted use of the word only?

where is an example of how other people are hurt by the behavior discussed-you said other people were being hurt-who, and how? and how lucky of you to be born and raised with the exact, correct definition of what is moral. nice insight into the human condition. your paradigm of morality is not a template for the human race to peacefully co-exist; not when you try to tell other people that their beliefs are inferior to yours, and should not be "permitted", to use your word.
1:28 PM Feb 15th
PS: I fought the temptation to make "mating" jokes, but I do always think it is funny to click "report abuse" whenever Bill posts something snarky.
10:06 AM Feb 15th
On the question of "winners and losers" and becoming small town lifers, does it all boil down to basic biology? Food, clothing, shelter, procreation.....and next the quality of each of these? If you are the high school football star, and you can stay local, get a secure lifetime ho-hum job from your fans on the township road department, crank out little tow-headed athletes with the homecoming queen, have high alpha male status over your beer at the Grits and Grins Saturday night ....hey, let's play those cards. But, Bill, in your experience, isn't there a tipping point in these decisions -- college? For those without the means to go to a "sleep-a-way" college, is leaving the hometown really feasible? I'd think if there is a draft or a war, okay, separate circumstance, but aside from that I'd think few would have the gumption to pack up their burger-flipping skills and head out fer Mt. Pilot.
10:03 AM Feb 15th
Well, this is what it means. When you say "stop with the moralizing", that is denouncing morality.
11:03 PM Feb 14th
i am not aware of people denouncing morality. i don't even know what that means; people disagree on the definition of morality. your words seem to imply that "your" morality is the correct version, and i think such an idea is quite narrow-minded. i denounce people imposing their concept of morality on others. of course, that definition of morality derives almost entirely from their religion, which in turn usually derives entirely from the latitude and longitude of their birth. tell me the coordinates of your birth, and i will have a pretty good chance of telling you what religion you believe in, what language you speak, what your your basic diet is, etc. there is not one reason to believe that any one of those variables-religion, language, dietary habits-is inherently superior to the others-they are merely different. and that, i believe, leads to what i believe is the single most important cause of troubles in our world-the notion that "different=worse". no, its just different. stop being so arrogant as to believe the morals you were inculcated with as a child are superior to the beliefs that others were inculcated with. only with religion do people develop an air of superiority and presuppose to tell others how to live their lives, and judge others as being right or wrong. give me a break-if those same people were born in the middle east, they would be espousing a completely different set of beliefs, albeit with the same certainty of being correct. and i shudder when i hear someone talking about what they will "permit" me to do, if i am not harming anyone. what people "obviously ARE being hurt" that i may be overlooking? without an example, those words are so opaque as to be unhelpful. big brother, i see you, looming in the form of others who know what is best for all of us, and who seek to impose their will on us.
10:54 PM Feb 14th
I don't think anyone dodges morality, nor do I think it is possible to do so. I think what has happened to America is not so much that we have abandoned morality, but that we have ceased to agree about it.

It seems to me that the political left, while denouncing morality in concept, is AT LEAST as moralistic as the right; we merely have different morals, and we refuse to think of them as morals. We regard racism as immoral.. .which is a good thing. We regard harsh punishment for children as immoral. . .which is a good thing. We regard environmental carelessness as immoral. ..which is a good thing.

I remember many years ago, teaching a class in a prison, that I realized that there was a "prison morality". Prisoners regarded weakness as immoral. They regarded complaining as immoral. They regarded excessive friendliness with anyone in power as immoral. All cultures have a morality. A baseball front office has a morality which is peculiar to baseball front offices.

But it could be, perhaps, that with regard to certain behaviors, we choose not to look at the victims, and then we choose to insist that there are no victims. We choose to insist, sometimes, that no one is being hurt by the things that we now permit, when the truth is that people very obviously ARE being hurt.
8:44 PM Feb 14th
jemanji-you are seriously going to use our sad human history as a precedent for what is right? slavery has been with us for the majority of human existence. oh yeah, it is also sanctioned in the bible. as is beating of wives. as is all kinds of evil that most believers would simply rather not be reminded of.
if there is one principle that i would think would characterize a society, that would be individual freedom of choice. if an individual doesn't hurt anybody else, let him be. otherwise, who decides? your version of morality is different than the next guy's, and frankly, why don't you make choices for yourself and let everyone else be?
please, stop with the moralizing on subjects that are none of your damn business. i may not like or approve of the way another person lives his life, but if he hurts no one, it is none of my damn business.
when i am at my most cynical, i think the reason many people enjoy religion is that it gives them an outlet for hatred of all things different. enjoy your life, but don't try to legislate my personal freedoms. ain't none of your damn business.
6:50 PM Feb 14th
Yorobert - are you saying that there is no reason that for five millennia, and on seven continents, there have existed sexual taboos?

Aborigines have sexual taboos. China had them in 2000 BC. Christianity didn't invent sexual taboos; all societies have them in place, and there are reasons for them.

We might decide, as a society, that the costs (people feeling stigmatized) outweigh the positives (fewer boys without fathers, more crime, etc). But let's not compare sexual taboos to shrimp night at Sizzler.

5:02 PM Feb 14th
But Steven (Stephen. . .not sure). . .no one suggested that we NEVER discuss politics. Small town people discuss politics exactly as much as city people do. What I said is that there are certain social occasions in which this discussion is put aside. It is put aside for the purpose of tolerance and inclusiveness.
2:22 PM Feb 14th
well, gary, i think the "new attitude" is that being gay is not a sin. and why is it that we don't see such moralizing against working on sundays or eating shellfish? maybe the "new attitude" is that people should not be so damn judgmental of others, especially when those others are harming no one. something like, "let he who is without sin...".
2:20 PM Feb 14th
Bill writes: "The Christians do judge the gays, and the gays do judge the Christians, but it is my observation, for what it is worth, that the gays are much more harshly judgmental of the Christians than the Christians are of the gays."

Not surprising, if the Christians subscribe to the principle of Love the sinner, Hate the sin. As in, there are many things people should not do (for very good and important reasons), but are you going to reject / ostracize / condemn / shun all those people who do one or more of those things? In practice, that doesn't work. As a Catholic, I was taught (and believe) -- we are ALL sinners, to one degree or another.

The new attitude seems to be -- there is no sin. There are no standards for behavior. Just do whatever you like, yee-hah. That puts Christians in the position of saying No. And it seems the unpopular thing you can say, these days, is No.
9:44 AM Feb 14th
I imagine you've never been in that situation, sgoldleaf.

You'd be very surprised how many people, at the church potluck, will carry on a nice conversation with you about your pregnant niece, or immigration, or the environment.

They don't want you to shut your filthy mouth. They really don't. Try to get out more.

Your friend,

5:57 PM Feb 13th
Steven Goldleaf
Let's examine that system, of never discussing politics or religion. It certainly makes you get along better on a daily basis with those around you. If you HAVE to get along with those around you, because there ain't nobody else around for twelve miles in any direction, it only makes eminent sense to discuss less controversial subjects. What that means ,though, is that the majority position on religion and politics is going to prevail and dominate. If yours is "Christian" and "Conservative" then that's just jim-dandy, but I wouldn't feel very significant if I lived in such a place and was a non-Christian and a non-conservative--every time I spoke my mind in public (or in private) I'd feel like I was wasting my breath, and I would be. In a large city, people feel much free-er to break that rule, and say what's on their minds--and their point of view, even if a minority p.o.v., are often heeded, because people are thinking "OK, he's a Muslim, and I'm a Jew, and we don't see eye to eye on religion and politics, but if he's given respect, then I can expect respect," so less conservative principles are voiced. I like living in a place where I'm considered normal for having strange views on religion and politics, which I do, and where I can voice those position openly without fear I'll just be viewed as a weirdo. In a small town, I'd be afraid that I was going to be ignored anyway, and my positions are just going to lose in a landslide anyway, so what's the use? All speaking up will do is alienate my neighbors. Better to shut my filthy mouth and get along with people.
4:10 PM Feb 13th
I guess I'm a bit of an anomaly in that I grew up in the suburbs, but I went to my first funeral at age 9 (great-grandmother), knew someone who was murdered when I was 12 and a suicide (two actually) at 16.

What struck me most about this particular piece was the view that because in small towns everyone gathers for social events, everyone tries to get along, regardless of political or religious affiliation. There used to be a saying that the two things you never discussed in polite company were politics and religion. Well, just look at us today: Thanks to 24-hour news stations that don't have 24 hours worth of news to report (or don't care to), it seems all we ever talk about now is politics and, as a natural byproduct, religion. I know that people are different online and off, but you don't have to go far to find evidence that this has negatively affected how we interact with one another in general.

Thought-provoking work, Bill. Kudos.
9:38 AM Feb 13th
I moved from a small town in one state to a small town in a neighboring state. My first six months in the new small town, I still had the out-of-state plates in my car. That was close to 20 years ago, and I got honked at more in those six months than in all the time since.

A co-worker had a similar experience. One of his first days in another small town in this state, he stopped at a store to ask directions. His plates were from a different state than mine. The guy's response: "I'm sick of you people from (that state). Go (expletive) find it yourself."

I'm sorry, but Flyingfish saying he is wary of generalizations is much more insightful than anything Bill has written in these two articles.
8:54 AM Feb 13th
These are two thought-provoking and interesting articles, and the comments are very fine as well. They remind me of a joke. Abe lived in a small town, and always dressed horribly. People knew and accepted him so no problem. Then he arranged to go to New York. He was told to clean up his act, but said, "No, why worry, nobody knows me in New York, I'll be fine." Well, after some time in New York he made some good friends, spent a lot of time with them. Eventually he planned a visit to his small town, and his friends said, "Abe, you can't go home looking like that, you look terrible." Abe said, "No, why worry, everyone knows me at home, I'll be fine."

I'm wary of generalizations, though, and I've met caring, accepting people in small towns and in big cities, and snobbish, judgmental ones as well.
9:08 PM Feb 12th
I think this is true in a lot of ways - I spent the first 11 years of my life living in the suburbs of Omaha, NE, and got used to seeing/talking to lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds. I do think it is important that children, at a young age, interact directly with people who are different from them so that they can experience first hand that we're all people regardless.

However, when I was 11 we moved to a very small town in Pennsylvania, of about 5000 people or so, and the closest "big" town was maybe 90 minutes away. In high school I had a lot of friends from many different backgrounds - jocks, art kids, academics, etc. The number of people living there was so small that even though I was a little unusual in my personality, they were still able to get to know me and be friends. It also helped that I had many different interests (academic, artistic, and, even though I was never good at sports, I always gave it my all).

So, I got the opportunity, having been old enough to see and appreciate both types of environment, to see the areas where, as Bill notes, small towns are more tolerant and also the areas where they were not. Had I been black I almost certainly would not have been accepted by several of my friends at that time. My very best friends probably would have been ok but some of the others would not have been. But because I am white, and so a "type" of person they were comfortable with, they were willing to then see past any additional differences.

I think that my experience was the best of both worlds - I grew up at a young age being in interaction with many different people from different ethnic groups, families of recent immigrants, etc. And then moving to a small town, I got the close-knit experience as well, and probably learned something about seeing past additional differences - personality quirks and preferences, etc.

I will note, though, that it was exasperating seeing the way in which racist and homophobic ideologies circulated in that small town. I had friends who had those leanings, and I learned to appreciate their friendship despite these sizable flaws in their perspective, still bothered me. Some of them have grown up since then and no longer feel that way, largely because they were forced to leave their more sheltered environment and face the rest of the world.

7:53 PM Feb 12th
My experience:
. . . grew up in an affluent NYC suburb. Yes, there was snobbery, but income level didn't have much to do with which kids were friends with which other kids - at least in the public schools. It was more about maturity level, risk tolerance, and common interests. And we saw ghetto kids from the surrounding cities and in New York city, but can't say we "knew them". We would visit our grandparents in Detroit or Ft. Lauderdale every year. I knew elderly neighbors. I attended many weddings from age 13 on, but wasn't taken to funerals while growing up.

. . . raised a family in the heart of Toronto. Hell, yes, it was love why I migrated here. I met my future wife on a road trip, though. I prefer city life, because there are more people who I enjoy being with here - not to mention more concerts & good restaurants to go to, etc. It is a trade off, though, against cleaner air and bright stars. . . It is nice to know small towns have diversity, too, but more likely just one or two particular ethnic groups as opposed to hundreds that we have here in Toronto. . .

Although, I am a gregarious person who enjoys talking to strangers, I can see the possibility that I really only know a narrower range of folks than I might if I lived in a small town. Every neighborhood has its own character - and its own limited number of ethnic groups and economic groups, although some are more diverse than others. There, of course, are many public spaces where everybody from all over the city get together in a friendly atmosphere. Some neighborhoods do have a greater mix of age groups than others. Furthermore, I assume there is much more walking here in this city than in the ‘burbs or the small towns. From that there is more interaction with all types of people. It’s not all superficial one offs, either. I’ve seen my mailman at concerts and parties. I’ve run into some my kids’ teachers at the grocery stores.

My kids have had interactions with a much wider group of folks growing up than I had. Yet, my daughter tended to stick to similar folks - although, her long time boyfriend is from a different religious background. My son has a wider variety of friends, at least, on the superficial ethnic/economic classifications. My kids have travelled far more than we did growing up. And whereas my parents came from nearly identical professional class Detroit backgrounds, my wife is from Italian immigrants to inner city Montreal. Hence, my kids grew up knowing very different cultures from their grandparents and cousins. Perhaps, that is just me, but in a city, I think that’s going to happen more often.

4:25 PM Feb 12th
++ But in other ways, small town people are much more open and accepting than city folk, simply because it is a community. It has borders, in a sense, and you have to deal with everybody within the borders whether you like them or not. In most cases you learn to like them; you learn to see the good in them. ++

This, and the following paragraph, is one of the most insightful things that James has ever written. Which is saying a lot.

Speaking as a 51-year-old father of a 22-year-old daughter, who was home-schooled and a very religious young woman … my daughter went to college and the club scene, expecting everybody to be like she is: warm, caring, and accepting of people different than her.

Though very conservative, she likes and accepts virtually everybody coming from a different point of view, including homosexuals.

The results were a horrible catastrophe, which we spent a long time unravelling. She ran into a vast world of experienced predators who despise everybody even slightly different than they are.

It's one case that *illustrates* the point. City people believe that the riffraff are intolerant because, usually, they have never gotten to KNOW any of the riffraff.

4:12 PM Feb 12th
But they may not accept you if you are black. It is easy to parse it down to personal or physical or auditory attributes. But not when it comes to race. In my experiences here in southeastern Wisconsin - regrettably one of the most segregated as any - small towns are typical much more homogenous than big cities.
1:01 PM Feb 12th
Funny how the article makes me think about these things. I grew up in suburbia, didn't know anybody who died until I was 19 (a grandparent). I didn't go to a funeral until I was 27 (a parent). Now at age 53 I've only been to 3 funerals.
2:12 AM Feb 12th
I'm enjoying these articles, but there are so many levels of complexity that come into these generalizations of small town life vrs suburbia vrs cities. I'm from a small Texas town, one thing I agree with is that since you truly have to live together, you do find ways to get along. In the 60s/70s when I was growing up, the black white dynamic could get ugly, there were a lot of fights at school, but when we weren't fighting, we played on the same teams, we were polite to one another's parents. No, we didnt spend much time in one another's homes, not in that era.

On another level, the tolerance depended on the extent to which you were an insider. My great uncle was clearly gay, he had close male companions his own age who lived with him, he had young proteges. He'd left and worked on Broadway for decades then returned home. As near as I could tell, through a young boy's eyes, he was beloved. People still talk of him, always with affection and deservedly, he was a lovely generous man. Maybe he could tell you of some nasty remarks and people, I remember being impressed by the tolerance towards the eccentric uncle even when pretty young. Small town eccentrics, certainly in the south, have a long tradition. But we'd been ranching around there since the 1830's, we were as settled and accepted there as it was possible to be. I don't know if the tolerance would have been the same if he'd been perceived as being outside the community.
9:36 PM Feb 11th
not to get all "Sandusky" on the thread but ... in a small town the parents probably know which old people are "okay" and which are shall we say "a little sketchy" ... probably one of the reasons city and suburb folk don't go around making friends with random older folks. Also I tend to agree with Bill here, in the suburbs where I grew up there was very little tolerance for anybody that did not fit in perfectly with the status quo. First funeral age 28.
6:34 PM Feb 11th
Had I stayed in the small town where I grew up, I would have been what I was at 12 for the rest of my life. It's not only that those who knew me would have seen me that way. I also would have seen myself that way—would have settled into my little role in our miniature society. I'm glad I grew up in a small town. I'm glad I left. I don't mean to contradict the article, which I enjoyed and agree with. I guess I'm restating what Bill said in the "Mating" article. The ones who stay are the "winners." They succeed because they embrace and enjoy their designated/self-designated roles. The losers—the ones who want more freedom to improvise instead of sticking to the script—hit the road.
5:21 PM Feb 11th
"I think for years it was customary to not bring children to ceremonies like funerals or weddings"

That didn't apply to me. I was a pre-teen for my first wedding. My first funeral also was the first death I was aware of.
3:27 PM Feb 11th
Just a couple of comments:

What is the definition of a small town? A town of 300 (or 1300 including surrounding farms) is a lot smaller than a factory town of 5,000 or a college town of 15,000, yet all are commony referred to as small towns.

My reading recommendation on this topic is "A Short History of a Small Place" by T.R. Pearson, who hails from Eden, NC. Takes a while to get used to the slow pace of his writing, but once I did, it was worth it. There were multiple chapters where I had to stop and put the book down because I was laughing so hard.
2:13 PM Feb 11th
I wouldn't get too narrowly focused on "funerals". You can know someone who died without going to their funeral if your parents don't take you.

Anyway, as another suburban poster, I knew at least a dozen people who died by the time I was a freshman in college, and went to at least a half dozen funerals. But there's caveat there: most of my parents' family and friends were Los Angeles Metro based in that period, so there never was the case of Uncle Bob in North Carolina who we never met dying. It was all people who had been over to the house, or us to theirs, etc. It was cross generation as well, from my great grandmother passing a few days after her 100th birthday to a grandparent dying to an uncle dying to a friends mom dying to a neighbor kid committing suicide in his late teens.

We all have different experiences.

Tolerance? The burbs are as much of a mixed bag as small towns. I've seen racism/sexism/bigotry in my "community" from a young age on, along with beautiful tolerance and acceptance. I can see them both in the same day, at times within an hour of each other just randomly.
1:20 PM Feb 11th
I grew up in a city, but also in a tight-knit religious/ethnic community, with a huge extended family. So for me, it was normal to have relationships with older people, and I knew lots of people who died. It's interesting, thinking about it now -- I actually lived two lives during my childhood, one in the family/church, the other with my friends at school and in sports. Only the family/church connections have persisted into adulthood.

Matthew Namee
1:08 PM Feb 11th
"I'm a city boy since I was around 13. I was around 25 years old when I went to my first funeral. I'm not sure what I can infer from that. "

I think for years it was customary to not bring children to ceremonies like funerals or weddings. I was only invited to my first wedding at age 23.​
12:50 PM Feb 11th
David Kowalski
My father grew up in a small coal mining town in eastern Pennsylvania. It wasn't as small as your town, Bill, but it was close. It had 500 people and the town across the river had 1,000 people. He literally went to both a one room grade school and a one room high school and his graduating class in high school had 8 kids. He was the first person from his town to go to college (he graduated).

My father had stories that just where small town and naivete. His family acted small town.​
12:10 PM Feb 11th
Hmmmm…. I am wondering if suburbia is going to make the homestretch and burst to victory in this debate? :-) I grew up in one acre tract lot suburbia. Fourteen houses, eleven with kids, almost all Italian and Irish Catholic. One Jewish family. One Latino family of some stripe. Went to a 2,000 kid high school with two black kids, a girl and a boy, and the cops shot and killed the boy a few years later by mistake. Or whatever. While we had barbeques and block parties, I feel now like the real drama of other people’s families was buffered behind the 200 feet between the houses. We did grow up sheltered, at least on the new Funeral Win Shares Saved metric introduced here. My kids did as well, in fact my son’s first essay at his left-of-left liberal arts college was a very personal connection with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Bill, I think part of your appeal is your forthrightness, so I will ape it here more than my personality normally would. It seems like the undercurrent here is flowing toward a criticism of prejudice….the lumping of people together in one’s mind under a label. Is that not where you seem headed with urbanites?
10:57 AM Feb 11th
"In a city, not so much; in a city you are much more likely to be judged and rejected, told in subtle ways that you do not measure up."

I just got done praising the article, but I don't think this ending is right.There's a segment of high-living or hip city people who judge and reject people, but the vast majority are not these people and don't care about these people. The vast majority belong to a community of some sort, be it an ethnic or geographical one, or a sort-of cultural one, forged by friendships and friend-of-friend friendships.

I'd agree with Bill's point that these communities often include like people who believe similar things. But the effect is not to make city people feel often judged and rejected; it's the opposite. The effect is that (many) city people feel accepted in ways they've not experienced outside the city. There's a reason gay youth move to New York or San Francisco, or people who love nerding out to classic French films, or people who want to wear insane hats, or whatever. It's because there's such a density of people in New York that you can (a) find others like you and (b) carry on without explaining yourself or drawing funny looks. This is the flip side to the balkanization and anonymity "problem," and it's why a lot of city dwellers feel stultified elsewhere, I think.

10:26 AM Feb 11th
Interesting article. I'm a New Yorker and think you've hit on something. I'm not a religious person at all, but have often reflected that it's too bad I'm not, or too bad some alternative to church doesn't exist that would bring me together with assorted people from my Brooklyn neighborhood, young and old, rich and poor, with regularity. I *see* these people, and the bewildering array is in itself an education, but I'm not meaningfully connected with many of them.

I used to work a media job on 42nd Street and it was all people not too unlike myself. Luckily I quit it, though, and became a security guard at the Met Museum, and the several hundred guards there are a community somewhat similar to how you describe a small town -- the artists and the grandparents, the education and the not, all jumbled together, same uniform, same job, with recurring points of contact and many many unlikely friendships. It's made richer in a especially urban way, too, by including immigrants from every conceivable country.

Now my wife and I just had a baby and are raising him in a predominantly Mexican and Chinese neighborhood, where we've bought an apartment. I'm fascinated to see how our lives will change when he makes friends at school from these communities that we interact with daily in a friendly, superficial way, but aren't meaningfully involved in.

I'll stick up for New York any day of the week -- the education of living here in a world metropolis. But this was fine article.
10:05 AM Feb 11th
Cities used to function much more like small towns back when there were mixed-use neighborhoods. People lived, worked, and shopped in the same area. Those who worked for the wealthy lived in the same neighborhood, often on the same premises such as an apartment over a carriage house. This arrangement began to erode when the migration to the suburbs started, motivated partly by racial attitudes and fears. It seems to me that this has helped produce the stark inequality we new observe in class and wealth in this country. The very wealthy live in gated communities, domestic help makes their way into these communities to work and then leaves at the end of the day. These gated community residents live in a very circumscribed world, interacting only with people exactly like themselves. They literally have no idea what it is like to be someone in the middle class or lower. There are at least some people of position and influence who are beginning to realize this, and are beginning to design communities that, like the cities of old, force people to at least ocassionally bump into others that are different from them.
10:04 AM Feb 11th
I'm a city boy since I was around 13. I was around 25 years old when I went to my first funeral. I'm not sure what I can infer from that.

9:59 AM Feb 11th
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