On ‘Small Town Values’

Like ‘family values,’ ‘small town values’ is a very popular codeword on the political scene in the United States. I see it getting thrown around in all kinds of directions, and I’m not really sure that people know what they mean or are trying to convey when they use it. Around 75% of this country’s population lives in suburban and urban areas, and I think there’s a big mythology that has been built up around small town USA that is evoked when people use this term.

‘Small town values.’ What is a small town? There’s a Main Street, of course. Folksy shops. No buildings over three stories. Low picket fences that people chat to each other over. A volunteer fire department that holds chicken barbecues. Folksy parades. Outlying farms. Everyone is friendly. Classes are small. You call doctors at the hospital by their first names. Middle class. Comfortable. Safe. Everyone knows each other, local political races are friendly, people hold bake sales and fish fries and 4-H shows. Flags on the stoops.

Things that don’t exist in small towns: Poverty. Racism[1. Or nonwhite people.]. Sexual assault. Domestic violence. Drugs. Right?

So, what are ‘small town values,’ I ask again. I’ve seen them described in a lot of ways. Generally speaking, I see people using this term to mean that people have a clear moral compass that they follow. Minimal tolerance for intolerance. It’s assumed that these values are conservative in nature. People helping people is another thing I see cited as a small town value; it’s assumed that when people are in need, other people will help out.

Do these values actually play out, in small towns? When I talk about ‘small town values’ with people, the thing I see coming up again and again is that in small towns, everyone assumes that everyone else’s business is their business. It’s not quite that everyone’s business is known, although privacy is certainly hard to obtain, but that, specifically, people think that everything and everyone is their business.

‘Small town values’ takes on a more sinister meaning. It’s about policing people, about determining who makes the cut and who does not, and viciously cutting people out. Make a mistake once in a small town and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You cannot slip up, ever. Whether you have mental illness or you totaled your dad’s truck in high school, this will be the thing that people remember about you and it will be the thing that people repeatedly use to deny you full access to society.

Small towns are also highly insular. There is very much an old boys club, based in part on seniority and in part on more slippery and complex things. Not quite aggressiveness, but the ability to create and maintain a position of prominence, often by shouldering other people aside. You wouldn’t want to be so blatant as to get caught at it, but you do need to be cutthroat, to a certain extent, to float to the top of the power structure, but not to be seen as someone who is striving for power.

Hand in hand with this, with a dominant group ruling a town like a fiefdom, is an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the ‘everything and everyone is everyone else’s business.’ That’s silence. Silence is a major small town value, and unlike in a city, where ignorance is an excuse, in small towns, there is no excuse for silence. Not when things are common knowledge because private business is aired before the entire community.

Horrible things happen in small towns and they happen without comment. Rape, domestic violence, child molestation. All of these things happen more than people in cities seem to think. Indeed, I remember a few years ago I was in the hospital, talking with a traveling nurse, and she told me that she had just applied for reassignment even though she had five months left on her contract because she couldn’t stand working here anymore. ‘I thought it would be a break, after the city,’ she said, ‘but it’s worse here. I have seen things that I would have told you were impossible before I came here.’

Silence. Silence is a small town value. As long as someone can do something while flying under the radar, it will be tolerated. That person will be embraced as a pillar of the community, even by people who know exactly what is going on. People, like law enforcement, who are in a position to stop it. And as soon as outsiders come in, the town turns protective, and it turns insular. It calls upon the mantra of small town values to argue that it should be allowed to deal with its own, even though it clearly is not capable of doing so.

People helping people? Small towns are vicious to people who do not meet the standard, as set by others. Small towns will kick people ’til they’re down and then kick them some more. Being homeless, needing medical aid, being poor, being hungry, in a small town, is not an enviable position. If you are the wrong type you will be left out to dry, even as the town rallies around its own with benefit galas.

Clear morals? Rarely have I seen shiftier morals than those I encounter in small towns.

What are ‘small town values’? What do people mean when they use this phrase? They are evoking an ideal that probably never existed and certainly didn’t exist now. I don’t think that those conservative politicians tooting this phrase from bunting-draped stands want people to think about silence in the face of child molestation when they say that we need to embrace small town values. I doubt that people want to evoke toleration for rapists when they say that we should be guided by ‘small town values’ and help people.