Big cities—like the internet in general, and social media in particular—make it possible for you to hang out, more or less all the time, with people who are just like you. By contrast, small towns, like families and churches, force you to deal with real difference on a regular basis.
“You move to the big city to get away from people.”
—Aaron Haspel, Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)
The ever-present possibility of peace and quiet, anonymity and alone time are among the city’s finest fruits. Even so, I disagree somewhat with Aaron Haspel’s position. I think most people move to the big city not to get away from people per se, but to get away from people who annoy them, people who aren’t like them. This may seem paradoxical or counter-intuitive at first blush, but that’s only because city dwellers take so much pride in their openness to difference, in their diversity. Of course the opposite is so often true: big cities, like the internet in general, and social media in particular, allow you to engage in social specialization—viz., they allow you to hang out, more or less exclusively, with people who are precisely like you. By contrast, small towns, like families (and churches), force you to actually deal with real difference on a regular basis. My mom’s odyssey into the strange world of small town Ontario is a case in point.
About a decade ago, my mom and her husband moved to a small town in Ontario for work. The town was adorable and quaint, and the people were friendly and kind, but I must confess that I found walking down Main Street with my mom downright difficult: the intense social pressure to greet everyone, make nice-nice and chit-chat with complete strangers—it was emotionally exhausting. That being said, I saw more bridging of real difference on a daily basis in that small town than I see in a month here in the big city. For instance, the town recently got their first openly gay couple. This is a social reality that everyone in town has to deal with, and they’re dealing with it quite well apparently. I’m told that even the worst of the grumpy old homophobes have come around. Because these people have to find a way to get along with each other, one way or the other. And it cuts both ways: the gay dudes can’t retreat into the safety and security of a homogeneous Gay Village. Same is true of the town’s four Jews: they can’t retreat into the safety and security of a homogeneous Jewish neighborhood. So the Jews, the gays, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the skaters, the sullen teenagers, the little old ladies, that guy who talks to himself in the park—and all the rest—deal with each other as best they can; and, much as it pains me to admit it, they do remarkably well, all things considered.
Dealing with diversity in a big city is sort of like watching a blizzard through a window. You sit by a warm fireplace in the dead of winter, on a comfy old chair, curled up with a blanket and a book, enjoying your creature comforts; sure, you look up lazily from time to time, and glance at the blizzard that’s raging out there, on the other side of the window—but you’re never really a part of that storm.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.