My dad couldn’t wait to leave Youngstown, Ohio growing up. There was a vast world out there he wanted to explore. He preferred to exit a place he couldn’t change in exchange for one where he could find more creative stimulation and meet different folks.
It didn’t take long for his away to feel like home, as was the case with my own upbringing. After my family moved from Dallas to New York, ‘Big D’ felt small and insular in retrospect. However, it was only upon visiting Youngstown to see my grandmother years ago that I witnessed a more parochial side of America.
In big cities, you’re just another unknown. In small towns, you can’t even hide; your family reputation precedes you from the coffee shop to the church. Being a somebody instills the false notion that everything is going to be ok because your relatives and neighbors share similar interests. But like-mindedness traps people into fitting in without questioning the status quo.
I understood why my Dad felt the urge to leave his hometown to seek new challenges. As Tocqueville observed, “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?”
But small towns like Orange City, Iowa are proving to be more elastic. Locals who left town in search of big city dreams are returning and bringing their changed perspectives with them. That doesn’t mean traditional values are withering, but it does mean that the provincial can come to tolerate ethnic and religious disparities without isolating the other. It’s worth noting that cities carry their own biases; in gentrified cities like San Francisco, the homeless sleep in newspapers just outside the homes or billionaires.
Democracies are supposed to be noisy, pluralistic places that progress through open dialogue. While the internet accelerated communication and appeared to knock down borders, it also led people back into tribes. The only way to salvage openness is to experience the world beyond your original birth place (urban or rural) and then come back with an appreciation for discussing differences face to face.
A tolerance for dialogue and discomfort makes territories on a map more arbitrary than they already appear.