Barbara Kay: In small towns, conformity is the law
National Post - Thursday July 25th, 2013
The headline reads, “Fewer rural doctors willing to perform abortions as health workers face increased hostility in small towns.” Without even reading the news account, I knew this was a story about the enormous power of socially homogeneous communities to subdue non-conformity in people from outside through threats of — or actual — shunning.
And so it proved. In B.C., a study concludes that abortions are dropping in numbers in rural communities because of a lack of co-operation from local medical professionals. In 2011 a study published by Dr. Wendy Norman found that the number of doctors providing abortion services in rural B.C. had dropped 62% between 1998 and 2005.
For progressives, this is bad news, as it forces women seeking abortions to travel to big cities to have them. But for anti-abortion activists, this figure comes as good news. It means women in these places will think long and hard before they make that decision.
Here in a consequential nutshell is why small towns are from some people’s point of view the worst places to live and for others the best.
I’m a big city person, born and bred. As such, I not only have a greater choice of activities and cultural stimulation than small-town people, I also have greater freedom of movement. When my children were young, I chose to live near the school I fancied for my children. I chose my circle of friends based on common interests and values and institutional associations. Socially, my cup overflowed with choice.
Which meant that I had more freedom of speech than small town people have. If my opinions offend certain types of people, well, there have always been plenty more fish in my sociological sea to swim with.
I used to take these freedoms for granted. Then some years ago, in a small town backing the strip of ocean where we and hundreds of other seasonal visitors spend many weeks in the summer, we became friendly with a local couple. They weren’t typical townees, because they were from a town about 100 miles away in New Hampshire. That already set them apart, but added to that difference was their choice to live on the ocean front full time. As a result they mingled happily with “summer people” like us, many from big cities, who had no social ties to “real” townees.
Their civic hybridism occasionally caused them to put a wrong foot forward socially. The wife once invited me to lunch with some local women who were planning a trip to Quebec City, where none of them had ever been before. Her thinking behind the invitation was that my familiarity with the city would make for good conversation and result in useful tips for restaurants and shops.
It was a disaster. When the subject was raised and I brightly asked if I could answer any questions, they frosted me out with a curt, “Oh, our organizer has arranged all that,” and turned to topics of more pressing concern … such as the rudeness of a neighbour who insisted on keeping his trailer in the driveway and not in the garage.
Another time they invited us to their home along with some local friends. I told a joke that had everyone laughing, at which point one local woman stood up abruptly, announced she had to leave and walked out in what was clearly a huff. Our friends agreed that she was used to being the centre of attention and our big-city candour and ironic humour had put her off.
In isolated, socially closed communities, where being from 100 miles away is enough to warrant tormenting, imagine engaging in a professional practice that a considerable percentage of the community deems immoral
Our friends paid a more serious price for their ambiguous town attachment. Their daughter was taunted from earliest childhood at the local school, where there was only one stream of children who had to stay together up into high school. For many kids with a long family history in the town, the comfort level was undoubtedly extremely high. But for this girl, of “foreign” provenance, the bullying continued to the point where withdrawal from school and homeschooling was the only option. With nowhere else to go, the girl — pretty, sweet, artistic, dying for social connection — was a pariah.
The social awkwardness at lunch, the sustained bullying of a wonderful child — all this was born of simply having been born somewhere else. Now, imagine being an abortion doctor in a small British Columbia village. In isolated, socially closed communities, where being from 100 miles away is enough to warrant tormenting, imagine engaging in a professional practice that a considerable percentage of the community deems immoral, or perhaps outright murderous. Viewed in that light, the shunning of abortion doctors seems less surprising.
I once had a conversation with the great English philosopher, Roger Scruton, about decency laws and where one drew the line between what was permissible and what was not in society. He said that in small towns, you didn’t need decency laws at all, because everyone knew what the line was. When you crossed it, you were shunned.