Unfamiliarity breeds contempt

A friend shared this map on FB today, and I was totally fascinated by it.


Most election maps, such as the top right one there, exist to show that the country is somehow really purple; to make the point that there’s no such thing as a red or blue state, and can’t we all just get along, etc. But this one is different: It proves the observation that “blue” sentiment is most common where people are concentrated. In other words, our political divide isn’t about regional differences (sorry, secessionists!) or even race or gender. It’s about how being forced to share space with a lot of people who are different from oneself breeds a political ideal that includes accommodating the varying needs of everyone, rather than trying to force drastically diverse people into a single model of what an American “should” be.

Rural areas, particularly those in the middle of the country, which doesn’t see a lot of immigrants (comparatively), tend to be very homogenous, and that leads people to be unfamiliar with those different than themselves. Add in the fact that cities and college towns represent a faster pace and more-complex approach to the world than the simple lifestyle to which they are accustomed, and it’s not surprising that rural folks tend to be xenophobic. That, of course, is reflected in how they vote. Just as urbanites vote with the needs of their diverse communities in mind, people in rural areas vote with the cultural ideals of a single type of person. As the country becomes more diverse, they feel that their idyllic, predictable cultures are being invaded by foreigners with foreign ideals, and they’re balking about that, and voting accordingly. The world is changing around them, and because they don’t have the same cultural conditioning as urbanites to deal with difference, they don’t have the tools to adapt to these changes. They are, for the first time in generations, being asked to understand and accomodate people who are wildly different from everyone else they know, and they simply don’t have the social skills to do that. It’s not that they’re unintelligent, just inexperienced and uneducated. And especially for older people who haven’t even had much diversity in media exposure, these new experiences can be scary.

Additionally, folks in rural areas are used to bootstrapping to some degree. They may have some help from neighbors and nearby family, but by and large, the lifestyle they lead is about solitary responsibility. It’s therefore not surprising that many of these people might not understand that trying to get by in an urban area, where survival skills are far different than merely knowing how to hunt and grow food, is a very different thing, and one that requires far more collective action. The predictable, standardized, universal-access offerings of government services therefore are going to make far more sense than relying on Joe down the road to lend a hand fixing a broken fence. Obviously, urbanites rely on their neighbors for many things, too, but the sheer complexity of urban life means that such community networks simply aren’t enough to cover everyone’s needs. Government alone is the one thing that can provide services to everyone without regard for language, religion, ability or other things that are going to be different for a wide range of people in the same zip code.

What rural folks need to understand, I think, is that though they may be physically isolated, they nonetheless share space–national, state and even county space–with millions of people who are different from themselves, and those different needs must be accommodated. It’s simply not possible to force people living in Chicago to live in a way that works for people in the middle of Nebraska. The converse, however, is NOT true; accommodating the needs of those Chicagoites doesn’t at all force those people in Nebraska to change how they live. Unless their point (and this is true for some) is that they never want a single dime of their tax dollars to pay for services used by people unlike themselves, there’s nothing about national-level government services that will force people in rural areas to live like urbanites.

Lest anyone think otherwise, I’m not saying that urbanites are somehow morally or intellectually superior to rural folks. Not at all. Just noting that different life experiences lead to different approaches to politics. While lack of contact with diversity may influence how rural people vote, it doesn’t have to be that way. They can choose to think about the world beyond their zip code, and vote accordingly, rather than succumb to the fear of the unknown other, and cocoon themselves in homogeneity. Even secession wouldn’t stop the fact that diversity exists, and must be accommodated if we’re all going to survive and thrive. You can plant all the confederate flags and build all the border fences you want, and that still won’t change the fact that the people who scare you are already here, and aren’t going away. And sue me, but I think it makes far more sense to learn about those people and adapt accordingly than to lock yourself in the basement and hope they go away.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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5 Responses to Unfamiliarity breeds contempt

  1. shaunaj says:

    I had always wondered why urban voters tend to be more liberal. Even devoted conservatives I know tend to swing a little more liberal when they move from more rural areas to the city, at least on social issues. This is why. They see people in all the different genders/sexualities/religions that they’ve never, ever seen before or had to interact with. This is a great post.

  2. Julie says:

    “What rural folks need to understand, I think,…”

    That paragraph ought to have been removed, unless you balanced it with “what city folks need to understand, I think,…” This was a fine post until the end. Perhaps you ought to do a bit more at trying to learn about “rural folks” and why they think as they do. Did you grow up or live extensively in a rural area? Your last two paragraphs are fairly offensive to anyone who has.

    • Not sure why the out-of-the-blue comment on a post from 2012. May I ask how you got here?

      As for your question: I spent the first 19 years of my life in a single-wide mobile home on an acre of dirt in a semi-rural unincorporated town north of Reno. Rural enough that my neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks or bus service (my street wasn’t even paved for the first five years I lived there) and the only thing across the street from us was three square miles of dry lake bed. Isolated and homogenous enough that there were exactly two Latino kids in my elementary school–everyone else was white. Everyone was also poor; the Reno economy is based so much in tourism that the vast majority of jobs are service-sector and either minimum wage or just beyond. Farm life? No. But definitely geographically isolated and demographically condensed.

      Additionally: My parents both grew up poor and isolated, too. My dad’s family were subsistence farmers who left Oklahoma during the Depression and settled in Arizona. The first home he lived in had a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. My mom was born in San Diego, but her first home didn’t have indoor plumbing. Her family moved to Southern Oregon in the mid-’50s, where they lived in a 2-bedroom cottage on a 2-acre mini farm, complete with cows and chickens.

      So, to answer your real question: Yes, I do know what I’m talking about. I also know that in the developed world in the 21st century, geographical isolation is no longer an excuse for xenophobia and the short-sighted politics that come with it.

      • Julie says:

        So you have some rural cred. That’s great; thank you for sharing that with me.

        But again, it’s always dangerous to make sweeping assumptions about a people group (in this case “rural folks”). Not all voting, worldview, and action taken by people who are not living in a city is done out of fear. The danger here is assuming that it is, because then it becomes a suggestion that rural people are just ignorant, they don’t have the correct exposure and experience. I would counter and say that they have a *different* experience and exposure and that urban people would do well to consider that they are lacking that as well. You simply cannot set up a scenario where rural people are fearmongers, acting out of fear while urban people, with all of their diversity, are somehow more evolved. There may be examples of this here and there, to be sure, but it cannot be said as true across the board. There are many rural communities with an interesting mix of ethnic, social, religious and cultural attributes. Now I know that today, it doesn’t count if it’s an ethnic mix that happens to be all white (Irish, German, Norwegian, etc.) because we are hyper conscious of skin color as being “ethnicity.”

        Additionally, diversity can, in some situations, weaken a group. Having a common culture and goal is strengthening. I know it’s almost sacrilegious to say such a thing now, but it is an element of truth and you can see it in the microcosms of organizations and movements. Commonality is not bad. Exclusion is not always bad in some settings. That’s a minor sidebar, however. The point I am trying to make is this: you seem to indicate that rural people must accommodate urban people because they “share” the national landscape, but the converse is true. Why would it be easier for rural people to change, and not urban people? Because there are fewer of them? Because they are less important? Because you think they are backwards? Because they need to change to be right and forward-thinking? If your reasoning is that there are more urban people than rural people, that logic would be anathema to those who hold to the idea of protecting and celebrating minorities which, in its truest definition, is any group of people who are not in the majority. Rural people can be considered a minority depending upon the angle you take.

        As to how I came across this post, I really don’t recall. A search, I imagine. If you don’t want comments on older posts, it would probably be best to set your blog to close comments after a month or so.

      • Oh, where to begin with this?

        1. Merely being part of a minority percentage of a given group doesn’t equal oppression. Millionaires are a minority. They are not oppressed. Conversely, women constitute a bare majority, and yet suffer some pretty serious oppression. It’s all about power, not numbers. Most of that power in the modern US is economic, but political power is a big deal, too, and rural voters actually have power disproportionate to their numbers, thanks to unequal representation in the Senate and in electoral votes. One could argue that that off-balance power is rebalanced by the disproportionate power the rich have in politics, but given that big money actually tends to follow the voting habits of rural voters (because of how much power they have), they’re actually being reinforced by it these days, not equalized.

        2. Yes, many rural people do suffer oppression, but it has nothing to do with where they live or how many of them there are. Most of the time, it’s a matter of poverty and lack of access to resources–the same things that can affect people in urban environments. There are also issues that affect farmers (the power of big agriculture, for instance), but of course not every rural person is a farmer, nor is every farmer rural. There are thousands of farmers near me that are less than an hour away from a major city.

        3. You seem to be suggesting that urbanites somehow adapt to rural folks’ desire for homogeneity. You get that that doesn’t make any sense, right? You’re basically asking urbanites to help clear the country of people that rural people aren’t comfortable with. And … No. Sorry. Like it or not, the U.S. is not populated exclusively by straight, white Christans. The sooner everyone realizes that and adapts to it, the happier we’ll all be. One can be picky about the people one allows in one’s home or other privately owned spaces (within the law.) One doesn’t get to be picky about with whom one shares a nation.

        4. Re: ethnicity. You’re right that there is some ethnic diversity among Americans with Caucasian physical features. In some cases, that ethnic diversity does still make a difference in how people are treated. For instance, where I live in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a very large population of recent Eastern European immigrants whose languages and religions set them apart from the rest of “white” culture here. However, most of the rest of the ethnic divisions among white people are minimal these days, and no one suffers any real oppression due to them. 100+ years ago, my Irish and Italian ancestors may have struggled when they first came through Ellis Island, but these days, those two aspects of my ethnic identity have next to nothing to do with my everyday life–certainly not in terms of whether I face oppression. People whose physical features or ethnicity are visibly different from the group with the most power, however, definitely suffer oppression, regardless of how long their families have been here and thus how American they are. There have been people of Chinese descent living in California for 200 years, yet no matter how many generations removed their descendants are from the original immigrants, they still face racism due to their physical feature set. And we won’t even get into the racism suffered by Native Americans, who have more claim to this country than anyone.

        So, no. The vast majority of white people do not suffer oppression due to their ethnicity on anywhere near the same scale as the vast majority of people of color. The two aren’t remotely comparable. I have never been denied a job because my mother’s maiden name is Sullivan and I never will be. I will never be told to “go back to Italy.” I will never be pulled over by a cop for Driving While Having Freckles. I will never be shot in the face by a neighbor because they think my blue eyes mean I’m knocking on their door to rob them.

        Honestly, you sound like the people who think they’re being religiously tolerant because they’re friends with both Lutherans and Methodists. It’s ridiculous.

        Back to the original topic of my two-year-old post, however: Pointing out a large-scale trend and theorizing as to why that trend might be happening isn’t the kind of targeted, unfair hatred you seem to think it is. Generalizing that “men” tend not to listen to “women” says nothing about the behavior of individual men, who might well be very good listeners. It’s only noting a large-group statistic. The same is true for the rural-v-urban issue. Since the generalization I made isn’t remotely leading to nor encouraging oppression of people who are systematically oppressed, no rural person has cause to complain about it. Get over yourself.

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