The term is likely as old as our university. When used, it strikes a similar universal resonance as the Weaver Chapel bells. Frankly, it is as much a part of the Wittenberg community as stomping the seal.
However, it doesn’t share the same prestigious celebration as Wittenberg’s founding, and it’s not used to make a wide-ringing call for community, as are the chapel bells. In fact, when used, people are not stomping on a bronze plaque to symbolize accomplishment; rather, they are stomping on human beings — those whom they call “townies.”
While referring to Springfield residents, the term isn’t merely a demographic title to be worn; it isn’t an endearing nickname for commuters, professors who live in Springfield, or well-to-do locals. Instead, it serves to marginalize those who reside at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Indeed, it is slang for people who are poor.
Despite the term’s derogatory nature, many come to its defense. “When I use it, I’m referring to those ‘rough, scary’ off-campus residents who always try to sneak into parties,” so the defense goes. “And there is obviously a difference between ‘townies’ and the other residents of Springfield.”
While the champions of this argument feel as though they have cracked the code on the socioeconomic dynamics of Springfield, they are merely overlooking — willfully, I might add — that this same line of defense has been used for most other derogatory terms. The same held — and still holds — true for the use of the “N-word:” “I’m not racist,” so the argument goes, “for there is a difference between a ‘N-word’ and most other African-Americans.” With slurs referencing the LGBT community, it has been: “there’s a difference between flamboyant homosexuals and other gay people.”
And even though the experiences of those whom bear the blunt of these slurs are magnificently different from those who have been defined — at least in our bubble — as “townies,” the same logic applies, and the hateful sentiments are quite similar: “we don’t like your kind.” But instead of being accompanied by a Confederate Flag or a proverb from Leviticus, the sentiment is expressed alongside a pair of Sperrys and a Wittenberg t-shirt.
What is more, this term is not only prevalent within student discourse, but the connotations it carries are also perpetuated by the Wittenberg administration.
For instance, the day before last year’s WittFest, Dean of Students Casey Gill and Chief of Police James Hutchins sent a campus-wide email, warning, “A large event such as WittFest draws many members of the Springfield and surrounding communities to our campus. Among them may be individuals who are seeking opportunities to take advantage of our community. Please do your best to SECURE your residences.”
Granted, there are certainly Springfield residents who steal things, but why differentiate the populations? Why were we not granted the same helpful “safety recommendation” in regards to those within our “own community?” Are Wittenberg students not capable of theft? It seems, for Gill and Hutchins, that there is something inherently threatening, dangerous, and “other” about the surrounding communities. Thus, while the email is coded in professional, politically-correct language, the message remains the same: “watch out for townies.”
Alas, the Wittenberg bubble is neither myth nor in the abstract — but is real, tangible, and not to be popped. We fortify it with our privilege, a trait we should be less haughty about.
Despite this bubble, we have, however, been able to extend our haughtiness beyond campus. Over the summer, Ruby’s, a local pub, crafted and dispersed a flier promoting the advent of a “Thirsty Thursday” exclusively for Wittenberg students: “NO TOWNIES ALLOWED!!” the flier reads. One could critique or moralize Ruby’s all he or she wants — but, after all, businesses will be businesses, and they will market what will sell. And, in the Wittenberg community, “no townies” resonates as well as Beethoven in Vienna.
Moreover, this phenomenon is not only pejorative, but it is also incredibly contradictory. As we have derogatorily tagged surrounding residents who are materially poor, we have also created and perpetuated poverty since the housekeepers’ wages were halved two years ago. More precisely, while showing social contempt towards them, we have, quite literally, produced so-called “townies.” Indeed, what a paradox.
Ultimately, the next time one is compelled to use this classist slur, I suggest he or she should refrain, and say what he or she really means: “person who is beneath me.” Or, if we don’t like that particular shift in vocabulary, we could always change our campus motto: “Having light, we hold it above others.”
I, however, think we can do better than that; I reserve hope for our ability to interrogate and eradicate our pejorative tendencies. But if I’m wrong, if we don’t have the intellectual and ethical courage to do so, do we actually have any light at all?