DRMacIver's Notebook

The conditional love of a small town

The conditional love of a small town

From bell hooks's "All About Love", Page 100:

I like living in small towns precisely because they are most often the places in our nation where basic principles underlying a love ethic exist and are the standards by which most people try to live their lives. In the small town where I live (now only some of the time) there is a spirit of neighborliness [...] We protect and nurture our collective well-being. We try to make our home place a positive environment for everyone. We all agree that integrity and care enhance all our lives. We try to live by the principles of a love ethic.

Earlier in the book she defines love based on the work of Erich Fromm as "The will to extend one's self for the purpose of one's own or another's spiritual growth", which is a definition I quite like (with perhaps mild quibbles about the word "spiritual"), although given how into personal growth I am (it's practically a love language), I would.

So a community that lives by a love ethic is one where everyone is committed to contributing to each other's personal growth. Such a community is incredibly appealing to me, and I often fantasize about finding or creating it.

Also, the idea of finding such a community in a small town? Not just no, but hell no.

One thing I think this illustrates is how non-transferable experiences of marginalisation are. bell hooks obviously has more experience of marginalisation than I do - she is a black woman in the US, while I am in most regards a fairly privileged white man. But I am also a queer neurodivergent person, and the experience of small towns for people like me is literally the worst.

If you're sufficiently "weird" and live or go to school in a small town, chances are pretty good you know almost nobody like you, and it's awful. In a large city you may still struggle to find people like you, but those people are at least there and once you've found a few you will find more through them. It is possible to build a community of people like you, and to build a love ethic within that community, in a way that I don't think people like me are ever going to really find in a small town.

I've been reading James C. Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed" recently (a book I suspect has never previously been linked to bell hooks's "All About Love"), which is about the hill people of Zomia, a large region of South East Asia, and their relationship to the states. In particular it points out that that rather than being some sort of "living ancestors" of the people of the valley states, the hill people are typically the descendants of refugees who fled the state.

One of the things that this has been making me think about is the use of marginalisation as an enabling technology. Many schemes for organising humanity along legible lines work much better if you can just get the people who don't fit to leave. Otherwise you'd have to force them to conform to the system (hard, probably causes rebellions), kill them (same. Also ethics I guess), or adapt the system in order to accommodate the actual richness of human experience (yeah right).

In the case of Zomia this is a flight from the large to the small - from the big states to the small isolated communities of the hills - but when it comes to towns there's an equal flight from the small to the large. The people who are weird and don't fit in nope out of the small towns and go find somewhere where they're less constrained. Small communities enforce their own sort of legibility on the people within them, and those who are illegible to them flee to the cities.

It may well be that small towns do exhibit the sort of love aesthetic that bell hooks describes, where everyone living in them promotes each other's spiritual growth, but if so they do so by driving out everyone who tries to grow in ways that are not approved.