small town values

One of the phrases that bothered me the most during last year’s election (indeed, during all elections), is “small town values.”  That elevation of the mores of small communities that make them better than the rest of us who, by virtue of living in larger metro areas, apparently don’t have any values.

I’ve never lived in a small town.  Currently, we live in a rural-ish area on the outskirts of a medium sized metropolitan area.  Prior to that, I’ve lived in medium sized cities (maybe 150-300,000 people).  That said, I’ve known people who lived in small towns and overall, I wasn’t too impressed by the values of those small towns.  On an individual level, the people in small towns don’t really seem all that different from anyone else, they certainly aren’t bastions of moral virtue.  That said, there is one thing that is different about small towns, and which is that they are small [tautology for the win!].

Being small, most everyone in the town knows one another.  As such, there is a pressure to conform to a set of norms.  Those people that don’t find a way to fit within the norms are often looked down on, find few friends within the town, etc.  After all, if you are a non-conformist, then you are going to have a hard time finding someone with your interests in a community with few people roughly your age.

The other concern that I have about small towns is the increased tendency to apply special rules to certain people, rather than a uniform rule of law.  Certain pillars of the community can be considered above the law.  “I can’t arrest Jack, he’s a deacon in my church.”  In larger communities, there are fewer special cases and a greater tendency [yes, I’m generalizing like mad here] to apply the rule of law across the board.

What got me thinking about all of this was a story I heard on NPR about sexual abuse scandals in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn.  Several rabbis in that insular community (and yes, small communities in larger cities share tendencies with small towns), have recently been accused of molesting children.  In that story, you can identify all of the problems that I have with small towns:

  1. The children, and then their families, didn’t feel like they could say anything to anyone because they would be ostracized.
  2. When they said something, they weren’t believed
  3. After they were believed, at least one of the rabbis in question got away with a slap on the wrist.  The school he taught at told the family he would be fired if they would agree not to press charges.  Then just a few days after the statute of limitations ran out, the school reneged on that agreement and said that on a scale of 1-10, the molestation wasn’t that bad, so they would keep the rabbi on staff.

You see this thing over and over in small communities.  There was a story on 60 Minutes (iirc) about a similar issue in an Amish community, and the polygamous sects of fundamentalist Mormonism, etc.

Speaking of polygamy, one of the silliest arguments in the debate over gay marriage goes something like this: “if you let gay people marry, then you’ll have to allow polygamy or people to marry children.”  On hearing this, my first thought is always, along the lines of, no – the marriage of two consenting adults says nothing about the marriage of three or more adults or an adult and a (by definition) unconsenting child (children can’t give consent).  My second thought is often, wait, what’s wrong with polygamy per se.  If three or more consenting adults want to live together as married, why does that hurt me – or them? Of course, on a practical level, every polygamy case we’ve heard of recently has horrified me.  In large part because it’s not multiple consenting adults.  It’s often young(ish) children, people who have never heard or known of alternatives, people that may (or may not) have given consent, but you couldn’t argue that it was informed consent.

So, as I was listening to the NPR story, it occurred to me that the biggest problem that I have with the stories of polygamy aren’t necessarily connected to the polygamy itself, but rather the “values” of the small communities which practice polygamy.  The parochial views, the lack of a rule of law, the lack of consent, the forcing of people into the community norms and the ostracising of non-conformists.  [Not that any of this should be taken to mean that I’m in the market for another wife – I think that K would refuse to consent to that 😉 ].

Don’t get me wrong, big cities are hardly a panacea.  They have their own sets of problems, but to suggest that small towns (communities) have cornered the market on values is just wrong.  But perhaps the problems I see with small towns are exactly the virtues that others see in them.  Perhaps small town values is really just code for “pressuring people to conform to a set of norms that I like.”   Unfortunately, that seems far too likely.  Either way, I think I’ll try to avoid small towns.

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