I was fortunate to have been born on Martha’s Vineyard, and to enjoy a pretty idyllic childhood of summers spent under the auspices of my creative and kind grandparents. It was definitely the best of times. The Vineyard “community,” certainly in the summer, was as a rule collectively fun and friendly. The most notable aspect was an absence of what I call “Sneetchism,” referring to Dr. Seuss’ snobby Sneetches. People mingled easily across socioeconomic class, and celebrities generally lived low-key lives among the rest of us. It was, above all, “groovy.”
A lot has changed since my childhood, but also since my stint as a year-rounder in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was part of a small, creative off-season community that felt socially egalitarian, because the Island was much less populated at that time, and we were all striving to make a living while pursuing our music, art, etc. We had no idea what was heading our way, starting in the summer of 1993, with the arrival of the “Clinton White House.”
I remember when even the A list got divided into hierarchies of belonging, based on who was invited to “party with Bill Clinton” back in the early ’90s. Since then, the egalitarian vibe of grooviness seems to have been largely replaced by a burgeoning social hierarchy requiring looks, connections, and wealth to even opt into the game. The interconnected social ecosystem I have encountered recently functions — to use Robert Greene’s analogy in “48 Laws of Power” — as a kind of court.
As a person previously affiliated with a 12-step “recovery” program in the neighborhood, I also never imagined the degree to which adult mean-girl behavior would spill out from meetings advertised as “anonymous.” Many Islanders are involved in these groups, and they have an inordinate amount of power to expose, humiliate, and ostracize fellow members out in the larger community. It happened to me. Anyone seeking what they expect to be a “safe space” for recovery, be advised: I had a bad experience. I hope more people in meetings will remember how and why honoring each other’s anonymity is so important: in a small community like the Vineyard, the consequences of disregarding that principle can be especially devastating to the person targeted and his/her family.
Those of us of more humble means and ambitions need our own safe spaces where we can live free of the oppressive “shade” of negative judgment perpetrated by the social cliques that dominate so much of the Island’s culture now. None of us should have to experience collective shunning as a result of a misunderstanding or conflict with someone.
I was severely bullied in junior high school. As happens with victims of bullying, I had my own episodes of social cruelty to others that I have sought to atone for — given I don’t have a problem apologizing if I know I hurt someone. But I never saw that horror of my tween years
revisiting my life as an adult, in a place I am deeply attached to, and at the hands of people close to me. I have tried to find out why people I have never met are acting hostile to me, and to resolve conflicts, through text as well as email: Bad idea. People who are bullying you aren’t trying to “negotiate” unless their behavior is having a negative effect on their own self-interest.
I hope more of us can find a way to cultivate some of the unpretentious grooviness that made the Vineyard I grew up in feel socially safe. We can all do this by being welcoming to people we don’t already know, instead of rejecting them, not buying into one-sided gossip and character assassination (I mean, if you purport to be a “progressive,” it’s not a good look), and putting less of a focus on gaining power over others. We can practice humility and kindness, in the face of the exceptionally difficult global reality we all face. The children need better role models in this regard, as part of a mission of hope. Adults in this community need to practice the social principles they so often preach.