In the community where I grew up, there was a hierarchy of people who were "gut oh tzene" (well-regarded) and those who were not and everyone in between. It was nearly impossible to move up in the hierarchy, but that did not keep people from trying. In their attempts at having themselves look better, people looked down at those of us lowest in the community. At some point I realized that there was nothing I could do to have people think better of me, because it had to do with my father not being able to function as Amish fathers "should." Because they didn't recognize mitigating factors, such as mental illness for what it was and were not able to deal with it, they seemed to think they could shame my father out of being the way he was. This was the Amish way. It's not that they excluded my father from the community gatherings, but they had a way of including him and excluding him at the same time. This system of approval and disapproval works to keep most people in line. But not for everyone.
Now that I've been out of the Amish for more than thirty years and I'm visiting different Amish communities and listening to various perspectives, I realize that this same hierarchy exists in and among the diverse Amish communities. For example, when David and I were in Grabill, Indiana, we had lunch at an Amish home, where they had opened part of their home as a restaurant. I seemed to remember that the Amish in Grabill are the Swiss Amish, but I also knew that Berne, Indiana was Swiss. So, I asked the Amish woman in charge how far away Berne was, and she said it was forty miles. I asked if the Amish in Berne were different than the Amish in Grabill. She said, "Oh yes, they are very different. They are much more — well, primitive."
I asked for clarification on that, and said that they are much more conservative — their farms were not well kept and they didn't believe in having anything hanging on their walls. She said that if they came and saw that she was running a restaurant, they would think she was very liberal. During the conversation, she mentioned that the Berne community was Swiss. I asked if the Grabill Amish were Swiss, and she said they weren't, but later she mentioned her mother was Swiss.
David and I were now curious. We drove around both communities before going back to Goshen for the night. We made observations: both communities had well-kept farms; both drove open-topped buggies; one community seems to allow bicycles, the other scooters; the dress varied some in each community. Can you tell which of these pictures were taken in Grabill and which were taken in Berne?
Or which of these two?
Notice this horse's feet are not touching the ground: I couldn't have caught him airborne if I'd tried, but here it is.
And one more chance:
Perhaps a person can tell the difference between one community and the other, especially with a closer look than driving around one afternoon and taking pictures. But that is actually not what I want to get at. Rather, what I wonder is why do the Amish people have such a need to put others down in an attempt to validate their own position, whether that is from one family to another within a community, or from one community to another? Now, as we "study" the Amish, we even have names for the Swartzentrubers and other Amish who don't measure up — the term is "low" Amish.
I did not know until long after I'd left my home community, that the Geauga County community where I grew up, was and is looked down upon. When I was reading Ira Wagler's
take on the Amish haircut attacks when I was reminded of this again. I quote:
Bishop Sam emerged from the strict plain Amish settlement in Geauga County, up near Cleveland. The Geauga Amish have always had an unsavory reputation. Just a notch above the Swartzentrubers. “Low” Amish. Uncouth. Rough. Hard core, far more so than the mad bishop who tormented me all those years ago. Their laughter is hard and mirthless. Many drink. Or smoke. Or both. And their youth practice bed courtship. All the bad stuff my father raged against in his writings, all his life. That’s Geauga.
I venture to guess that many Amish communities view the Geauga Amish this way. I find this is a huge generalization. Some individuals who came out of other Amish communities would like to have me join in on this way of thinking, especially people who grew up in Holmes County, Ohio. But no one can tell me that the problems we had in Geauga don't exist in these "high" communities, so the question is this: are these problems as prevalent in other communities as in Geauga? I'd have to be a fly on the wall inside many Amish homes to know the answer to this question and none of us have a way of doing that. But this I believe: by pasting these issues on "others" these Amish groups avoid confronting their own problems.