Uptight Oklahoma

Image of state Capitol and church

A new study ranks Oklahoma high in “tightness,” or perhaps it might be better to describe it as “uptightness.” It’s not bombshell news for many of us here, but uptightness does influence the quality and personal freedom of day-to-day life here

Two University of Maryland psychologists, Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand, have developed a theory they call “tightness-looseness,” which they use to rank geographical places. As you might expect, tight places have little tolerance for people breaking minor rules or living outside the box while loose places give people more leeway to express themselves freely.

Oklahoma is ranked the fourth tightest state, right under, respectively, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. As you might expect, most of the tight states have numerous negative social problems, such as high incarceration rates, and poor medical access. They have more consistent severe weather. They have fewer artists, such as writers and painters. In Oklahoma’s case, I would definitely stress that overt right-wing religious extremism palpable here on a daily basis is a part of our “tightness.”

The report notes "a negative and linear relationship between tightness and happiness.” That means the authors make the claim that, overall, people in loose states are happier than people in tight states. How happiness gets measured on any scale seems problematic to me, but I tend to agree generally with the assumption, especially when you examine depression and anxiety levels.

The ranking corresponds pretty much to the red state/blue state divide in the country and, consequently, the information could have substantive political potential. Yet I wonder if the study really only gives an academic frame that most open-minded and progressive people here in Oklahoma already known in a deep-seated manner. Sometimes, it takes a visit elsewhere to make it more manifest. In the freedom of Paris recently, I was struck by this very dichotomy.

Tea Party voters here yell “freedom” at every opportunity but it’s difficult to know what they mean on a personal level. Oklahoma is a place with oppressive laws, from the banning of same-sex marriage to the arcane restrictions on alcohol to the severe implementation of draconian drug laws. Because of our tightness, we end up with poor health outcomes and depression.

For some of us who stayed in Oklahoma and made our lives here for whatever reason or responsibility, this study probably just states the obvious. It can be suffocating to live here. The local, mainstream news, for example, is often enough to remind us of this place’s ultra-tightness level. The solution, of course, is to seek open-minded communities and friendship groups, which do exist here. This is easier for some people more than others. We can work to change things as well, but success can only be measured in generational terms at this point.

The bottom line is that tight Oklahoma can be an oppressive place for open-minded people. I believe we lose an extraordinary number of creative people to other places because of the overall ambience of sternness and intolerance here.