Hicks. Hillbillies. Rednecks. White trash.
These are just a few of the hateful, derogatory terms that social media users embraced to label those attending the Luke Bryan country-music show at Heinz Field last weekend.
To be sure, some of the attendees lived up to the stereotype. Pictures of garbage-laden parking lots and videos of drunken behavior have been shared, posted, re-tweeted and emailed thousands — perhaps millions — of times over.
Statistics released by the city of Pittsburgh testify to the impact felt by its public servants: 154 calls for police services, 100 calls for medical services, 34 transports to a hospital, 20 tickets for scalping, 10 tickets for public urination, six tickets for disorderly conduct, one ticket for public intoxication and a number of arrests.
While the trash apparently did not pile up as high as it did last year at the Kenny Chesney concert, conditions in certain parking lots were nonetheless deplorable. Pittsburghers do not deserve to have their home so egregiously disrespected, nor should they tolerate it.
But reporters have spilled enough ink and dedicated ample airtime to these problems. Another problem that deserves attention is the reaction to these events — in particular, the prejudicial and hateful stereotyping of rural Americans.
Country-folk seem to be the last group of people one can openly stereotype and disparage without fear of social reprisal. And I am certainly not the only one to notice: Just last month, an article in Inside Higher Ed lamented the prevalence in academia of people looking down on rural Appalachian students.
This needs to stop. Social discourse gains nothing from trading a critical eye for unthinking bias. The human condition teems with nuance and texture in all places at all times. And rural America is no exception.
From growing up in the Pennsylvania countryside, I can testify that not every rural American chews tobacco, drinks Budweiser, drives a pick-up truck or hates Barack Obama. People come with all manner of differences, hold radically divergent views and have experienced radically different things.
Sure, we have our problems. Some are our fault, others are beyond our control, often they are a mixture of both.
For instance, intense parochialism can foster an unhealthy distrust of anything different and a fear of exploring all that the world has to offer. This stifles the stretching of people’s intellectual, moral and cultural horizons. This leads some families to discourage their children from attending college, either because they do not want their children to leave home or because college, in their minds, is a waste of time. And even those students with supportive families find themselves at a disadvantage, lacking resources that would enable them to gain admission to highly regarded colleges and universities.
The list of problems goes on, but everyone and every place has problems. Hurtful labels do nothing to solve them. What they do is reinforce the negative and false preconceptions that people have about rural Americans and further marginalize those who suffer most from such preconceptions — the young people who limit their own potential because they come to believe such stereotypes apply to themselves.
American society has continually struggled with prejudice, as we all know. It was not until the 1960s that American law began to meaningfully recognize racial equality. Only recently have Americans embraced gay rights as a civil rights issue. The conversation about equal rights for transgendered people has only just begun.
Making socially unacceptable the prejudice against rural Americans — who are often stereotyped as opposing civil rights advances, by the way — will continue to be difficult. But everyone deserves recognition of their basic human dignity.
Ryan M. Hrobak grew up in Spring Church, Armstrong County, and is studying for his master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.