The Others, Reverse Provincialism and the Prospects for Provisionalism

How easy is it to put down others for their viewpoints, especially when we can slap a pejorative label on them? This is exemplified by the blue vs. red state, urban vs. rural and woke vs. unwoke stereotypes. None of which are particular useful. Still, allow me to make a generalization: a lot of urbane, well-meaning, educated people suffer from what I call reverse provincialism.

They are so convinced that fellow Americans in rural areas, or states with large expanses of rural areas, are all a bunch of rubes who are incapable of critical thinking. Ironically, people making such determinations may be doing so based on little or no real information, purposely relying on little splices of information to fill out an entire picture that makes them feel superior.

For many white Americans, the way to do this without being called a jerk or bigot is to simply make fun of other white Americans from another region. This is nothing new. But, for some the Civil War has hardened an attitude that borders on animus (in either direction). It certainly is dismissive. One does not want to allow the possibility that others, the others, could be equally well-ensconced in their lives or even better off in their lives. Case in point: we a couple of years ago were seated in a craft beer and burgers bar in Vermont in a state of foodie bliss when the complainers sat down at the next table. They complained about the weather, about a persistent headache, etc. Soon enough, it turned time to complain about other people.

They got on their topic with Atlanta. How horribly hot the weather is, how it is “landlocked” and sweltering (nevermind that enormous body of water to its north, the recreational haven of Lake Lanier). The whiniest and eldest of the bunch dismissed everything about Atlanta, “those people” (God only knows what he meant) and that suburb “Buckhead County,” which he misstated is a suburban county and not really Atlanta. It was hard to tell which he thought was worse Atlanta or this place he falsely described as separate. The man next to him announced that Houston is only strip malls and skyscrapers, and based on his two days’ experience there, utterly lacking in anything else. Adding to my mystification, a lady at the table related that Laredo, Texas, is stifling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. I’ve spent time hunting in Laredo in January and February, and can attest it is not cold there.

As a native Northerner who lives in and loves the South, I wanted to correct them on all counts, but decided I could not stand their ignorance and attitudes, so I returned my attention to our table. As I gathered up my coat, I heard the complainer in chief, bitching about how he really doesn’t care for beer (then, why are you in a craft beer bar?) and stating his preference for wine. Clearly, he again felt the need to put down others and launched into a diatribe about people who waste good wine pairing it with ethnic food, specifically, such as Mexican, Chinese or Thai. I wanted to scream, have you ever been to Bangkok? Eaten at a very nice Chinese restaurant? Have any idea about the varieties of Mexican regional cuisines? This guy would hate hanging out with us, especially as two of our favorite foods are tacos and beer. But, I also think a Pinot Noir would go really good with Penang curry. Jackass.

It didn’t take long for me to find these know-it-all-not-really types quite annoying. And, yes, I take a dim view of people with these viewpoints and attitudes. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe. Should I have tried to engage them? Would I have sounded defensive? “Say, we live in Houston and love it, especially the parks and trails.” Or, “Laredo is not freezing in winter.” Or, “wine is great with so-called ethnic food!” It is difficult to bridge a gap with strangers. This brings me to provisionalism, in contrast with provincialism. What is provisionalism? It’s the concept that people do not need to hold onto ideas when better ideas can come along. Provisionalism is the opposite of certainty. It’s about being open-minded. It’s also really difficult. We generally like the idea of the competition of ideas. We typically just don’t like to see our ideas defeated. Provisionalism means you are willing to consider another idea. It also suggests one should subscribe to that better idea once it comes along.

Ah, but it’s so hard. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” statement is a case in point. She actually said half of Trump’s supporters fall into a basket of deplorables. In the next breath, she said, the other half are “people who feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change… Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

Yet, even when she tried to repeat the need to empathize and be inclusive, or as she campaigned be “stronger together,” it was too late. All anyone remembers, understandably, is the basket of deplorables. Why? Because it is a label. It’s an effective label. And, its counterweight is the people who embraced it in defiance. Why? Because people often mock negative stereotypes by embracing them. And, that leaves all of us going around and around and getting nowhere. Are we even capable of provisionalism?

The Sage Leopard,