(About an 8 minute read)
I think the best way to begin a discussion of how small town reputations work is by talking about Glen.
Glen shocked me that day I discovered he was an adamant creationist, but in hindsight I should have seen it coming, for evolution contradicted his faith. In my shock I thought a few things I regret now. Notions about him that lacked understanding and kindness, and that were absurdly false and misleading.
But at least they weren’t actually cruel, and they at last scattered from me like ugly plastic bags, blown away by the breeze of Glen’s basic integrity. In the end, I concluded he had — like all of us now and then — merely betrayed his intelligence and basic authenticity, a thing I conceded didn’t happen too often with him.
As it turned out, that was the only shocking thing Glen ever did, and the only time I ever more felt more than superficially judgemental of him.
I am tempted however to exaggerate for the fun of it the surprise I took when Glen befriended me in middle school by claiming I was sorely shocked at that, too. But while it did both surprise and fascinate me that he befriended me, I was never honestly shocked by it.
I think now it was in seventh grade when he and his family moved into our small town from Las Vegas, and bought a huge old light blue-grey Victorian to settle in. We met one lunch period, and I suppose we met largely because he and I were about the only two kids who had no one else to socialize with.
Of course, in his case, that was because he was new to everyone, but in my case there was a different reason for it. I was a bit of an outcast. I wouldn’t call myself a “pariah” — that’s too extreme, and in some ways I was included in things. But in many ways I was not.
My moderate alienation confused me at the time, but in hindsight now, I see two factors in the leading roles. First I had a relatively bad reputation that had been chasing me since kindergarten. If you are not familiar with small communities then it might seem quite implausible to you when I say that to a significant degree, reputations govern and regulate the lives of everyone in the community.
That’s to say, it matters much less who you are in such communities than it matters who you are said to be. Of course, there’s a sense in which that’s true of any place, large or small. But in small, stable communities your reputation literally begins at birth, is quite soon widespread, and is never completely suspended or wholly disbelieved for even a moment by anyone.
It is also cumulative. How folks felt about you in second grade is seldom forgotten by them. Instead, it is elaborated on in much the same way a symphony builds and builds through self-reinforcing variations on a core theme.
The practical consequence of all that is there is almost no way at all to escape being treated according to your reputation — and almost your reputation alone. You could in theory turn from an angel into a demon and then change sexes from boy into girl, but people at the very most would treat you as if you had merely become a rather naughty boy angel.
The other factor playing a leading role in my moderate estrangement was my lack of most social graces. For whatever reason, I only had but one. I could create and tell a good joke.
Apart from that, I felt like an incompetent acrobat on a high wire who every day plummets to his death at least once or twice. I had one close friend, Dennis. Dennis and I were bonded solid to each other, and yet we were by then slowly drifting apart. Basically he was popular and I was not.
By the way, Dennis was the most inclusive kid in our class. He belonged to no particular clique because he belonged to just about all of them to one extent or another.
Beyond that, I recall a few of my peers, such as Cindy, were especially kind to me, no one seemed to nurse any remarkable hatred for me, but I believe I tended to put people on edge. I wasn’t all that well trusted (perhaps my wit at times was too biting for that), and I was too often awkward and needy.
So by the time I was in middle school, I felt my reputation as a tangible oppression, a concrete prison from which there was no practical escape at all.
Then along came Glen.
Glen, of course, knew nothing about me, and moreover I could actually feel he knew nothing about me. That is, in so many ways, great and small, Glen treated me differently from everyone else, and from the very start.
I only recall now that he asked me a question — about what I do not remember — and that the tone of his voice surprised me. It had not a trace of indifference it, not a single note of hesitance or caution to engage. Instead, it was upbeat, welcoming, and cheerful. From that very moment, I was sold on Glen.
I didn’t even need to discover, as I soon enough did anyway, that Glen was notably intelligent, rational, and knowledgeable — three things that so impressed me about anyone back then, I was all but blind to most other virtues such as kindness, generosity, and do forth.
So Glen came as a liberator to me. Or more precisely, there was no way he could actually wipe clean my reputation, but he had the effect of allowing me to taste how the world might treat me once I had grown up enough to leave town. In hindsight I can confidently say that the hope he gave me of a better world to come most likely played a large part in why I was never seriously suicidal.
Of course, the medium of reputation is gossip, and in a small town gossip is rampant and swift. My mom used to say, “Only a few people here are malicious gossips, everyone else is just insatiably curious to know what everyone else is doing.” And she was right.
Gossip is glue. The community bonds through staying touch with each other by means of it. It much more often brings folks together than separates them. And it travels as fast as firing neurons trigger other neurons to fire.
I have dozens of stories about how thirty minutes is more than enough time needed for something said to the baker to be known both by the banker and the whole gas station crew of mechanics. And least you fall for the old stereotype, everyone plays the game — by no means just old housewives.
Even the press is in on the act. In my town, the weekly newspaper relied on a network of key informants to report such things as who ate supper with who last Sunday night.
Gossip is not only the glue of the community, but the police force too. Or more correctly, it is the intelligence agency. It allows everyone to know who the miscreants are and what exactly they did.
When you think about small towns, then, think about reputations — not so much people or persons, but reputations. Think about reputations as maintained and added to by gossip. And think about gossip as holding everything together, as well as informing the citizenry of who is up to what.
But that’s not all there is to it.
Today, I am a fierce advocate of authenticity. That is, I believe the ideal adult human is a strong, self-flourishing individual who is true to him or herself in socially and environmentally responsible ways. Basically the very antithesis of the ideal small town adult.
So far as I know, every small community has the same unspoken motto, no matter what the mottoes individuals might adopt for themselves. “To get along, go along with the other folks in town.” The straight-forward implication is that authenticity is secondary at best to conformity. But if so, then why is that? Why does conformity trump being true to yourself?
That was a puzzle to me until my younger brother explained it to me. The gist is this: In a small town, you cannot afford to make enemies. Not only will that most likely mean you have made an enemy for life, but the communities are simply too small for enemies to “solve” their animosity by avoiding each other.
You only have one or two grocery stores, you only have a few restaurants and bars, the entertainments are rare but attended by everyone, and even the good paying jobs are few. You are bound to literally run into each other again and again within short periods of time.
But it gets worse when you realize even if you could physically avoid each other, enemies cannot avoid their impact on each other. Want to befriend Jones? Jones is already a friend of Smith. Good luck with that. Want a job working at the town’s only manufacturing plant? The head of personnel there is a cousin of Smith’s best friend. Even if you get hired, all hell will be dumped on you a week later when Smith finds out about it.
But the best way to avoid making enemies is to avoid conflicts by conforming to their standards. Hence, the pressure to go along to get along.
It might surprise you now to learn that small towns will tolerate a remarkable degree of diversity. But the catch is this: Any significant diversity cannot be flaunted. It can be widely known, but never flaunted.
One of the most esteemed people in my town was a teacher who was also a known homosexual. He never confessed to it, and the town never took issue with him for it — although some churches preached against it on Sundays.
A second person was also a homosexual, but Donny had been tragically outed by a presumed friend. I once was present when he was almost violently hounded from the movie theater almost before the show had even begun.
Near as I can figure it, about half of you reputation comes from your own behavior, and the remainder comes from your family’s reputation. I went to school with a kid from a neighboring community — a much smaller community — that consisted of less than dozen or so families.
Sometime in the early 1820s, most of those families had begun to develop reputations as petty criminals and trouble-makers. Their reputations stuck with them into the 1970s, at least. My friend had grown up knowing that he had to walk a very straight and narrow path in life because the sheriff and courts would have no mercy on him should he stray.
In contrast to him, I could get away with almost anything short of an actual felony.
So here’s where we are: The operating principle is “go along to get along”. That in turn is enforced by gossip, which is also the glue holding people together. Reputation then comes into play as both the lens through which you are seen by others, and the often predominant factor in how they treat you. In it’s latter role, it becomes a prison of sorts more or less forcing you to go along with others or face the consequences of failing to do so.
Or pared down to bare basics, reputation insures you conform to the standards and expectations of the community. And that has the overall effect of promoting stability.