Friday, August 11, 2017

Middle-class life shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities

An interesting perspective from an Australian from a poor working class background now in the middle class. The shibboleths of social justice and postmodernism are an indulgence affordable only in circumstances of prosperity and in that regard are self-defeating. From In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class by Shannon Burns
The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites. I confess that if a well-dressed, university-educated middle-class person of any gender or ethnicity so much as hinted at my ‘white privilege’ while I was a lumpen child, or my ‘male privilege’ while I was an unskilled labourer who couldn’t afford basic necessities, or my ‘hetero-privilege’ while I was a homeless solitary, I’d have taken special pleasure in voting for their nightmare. And I would have been right to do so.

As an aspirational teenage lumpen, I learned to embrace a working-class ethos. It was a simple, experiential lesson: whenever I allowed myself to feel like a victim, I fell into paralysis and deep poverty; whenever I took pride in my capacity to work and endure, things got slightly better. One world view worked; the other didn’t.

Even if I was wronged or oppressed or marginalised, claiming victim status seemed absurd (since I often came across people who were more unfortunate than me), limiting (since there were other, enriching aspects of life to focus on), humiliating (because in the working-class world self-pity is reviled), and self-defeating (because if you allow yourself to think and behave like a victim, you quickly fall into lumpen despair).

At university, I discovered that this ethos didn’t apply. A season of despair would not send middle-class teens spiralling into a life of drug-addled indigence; they could simply brush themselves off and enrol again next year. Strong, class-enforced safety nets meant that self-pity could be accommodated, and victimhood could even form part of a functional identity.

Indeed, the willingness to expose your wounds is another sign of privilege. Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle-class grievances now drown out lower class pain. This is why the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish. Those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage.


The desire to create a world devoid of cruelty and unfairness is unquestionably noble, and the idea of a racism-free society is rhetorically useful—especially when you are dealing with impressionable children—but it is only a happy fantasy. Tribalism is a global phenomenon. Its roots may be evolutionary or cultural or both, but it appears everywhere, and it flares up whenever people fear that their way of life is under threat. When we believe our rhetoric and use coddled, middle-class experience as our reference point, we lose sight of practical objectives, and ignore obvious risks as well as genuine social accomplishments.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon. But the lower classes are not as tolerant as old nags, and they express themselves with actions rather than arguments and complaints. If you direct them to gallop at windmills, they stand still. When you try to whip them forwards, they buck you off. If you then rebuke them, they kick you where it hurts. And they are right to do so.

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