I think Leonard Cohen got to the heart of the class system best in his song “Democracy” where he sings about, “… the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.” That pretty much explains the why and what of it.
The phrase may be a bit misleading, at least in the sense I mean it, in that it is not so much a system as a manifestation of human behavior or traits. There are rich people, there are poor people and there is a large, ill-defined group of people in the middle.
I was thinking about “class” recently and, surprisingly, found a couple of articles and posts online that spoke to the same topic. There was a NY Times article, Let Them Eat Tweets (Virginia Heffernan) and also Dave Winer’s What I learned about being rich. The first prompted the second and both touched on the subject of, “…how connectivity is for poor people.” To be more accurate, it’s for anyone who is not rich.
This entire topic was brought up by Bruce Sterling who, apparently, “… proposed at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin that the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on ‘connections’ like the Internet, Skype and texting. ‘Poor folk love their cellphones!’ he said.” (Quote from Let Them Eat Tweets.)
In his post, Dave Winer says of this poor people-connectivity business, “I learned about this when I made enough money in the late 80s to realize what wealth buys — distance. Then it took a few years to learn that distance is not what I wanted, in fact I don’t think it’s human to crave distance. People are built to want to be among others, at least I was.”
I’m not sure of what I think of all this but I think it’s probably true that rich people don’t want or need the connectivity. (But is that due to wealth or due to the fame or celebrity that goes with it?). But it’s also true that the poor aren’t really a part of these discussions. The truly poor, regardless of want or need, don’t have connectivity because they can’t afford it. As far as the discussion about “connectivity is for poor people,” poor people here means the middle-class. The poor are excluded.
The discussions also betray a Western bias in our thinking. The people we’re really talking about are the rich and the big, generic group in the middle. Excluded are the poor, the genuinely poor, those in our cities and towns and that great amorphous mass we see in those charity ads about making donations, sponsoring children and families, the unnumbered many in all those countries with names we have difficulty pronouncing.
When we use terms like “class” or “class system” we usually conjure an idea along the lines of the 19th century, maybe a Victorian world, something like that show from years ago, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” In our minds, there is something of a disconnect. We don’t see it as applicable to our lives. Class means vertical alignment: the poor, the middle class, the rich.
But when we look at these economic distinctions and what “class” really means, and particularly when we look at the middle, we see distinctions are also horizontal. Class is a form of tribalism: who is part of my tribe and (often more important) who is not. Our distinctions are often more about exclusion than inclusion.
For example, following a plethora of stories and posts about Twitter recently, we now see the “inevitable” backlash (which some call ‘fake‘). Fake or not, if we look at popular culture we see it really is inevitable because, just as much of the enthusiasm for Twitter was irrelevant, so is much of the backlash. It’s like popular music. Once something becomes too popular, too mainstream, many feel the need to go against the grain because that is an aspect that defines their tribe, their identity.
Popular music may be the best example of how we section ourselves off horizontally. We choose a genre or genres: country, pop, indie, alternative, jazz and all the others. Then, we choose an artist or artists. Then, we choose to be on the popularity side or the anti-popularity side of the fence.
A while back I wrote a post (This is not about Celine Dion – or is it?) that talks about Carl Wilson‘s book “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the end of Taste.” It’s a book about aesthetics and musical tastes and takes as a jumping off point the fact that Wilson doesn’t like Dion’s music, so he examines why that is so. One of the remarks from my post about it was this:
The other aspect I found interesting is the discussing of the cultural and social aspects of what we do and don’t like and how, to a great degree, it ends up being a class thing. “I’m better than you because I listen to the right music; you’re beneath me because you listen to that schmaltz.”
It’s that phrase, “I’m better than you …” that lies at the heart of all our distinctions. Whether we like to admit it or not, a sense of superiority is at the core. Depending on where we fall within all these distinctions (in the eyes of others) and how we identify ourselves to ourselves, we feel better or less than others, and those others see us as better or less than them.
Think of all the ways we define ourselves, and of the degree to which they combine for even more distinctions:
- sexual orientation
- tastes (and its subsets: music, food, film etc.)
The list goes on and on. And often, as with those of us who are interested in technology and social media, once we have our identity defined, the definition we choose tends to limit our view. I’d argue that one of the main features of distinctions is their limiting character. I’m often surprised, after a day working on my laptop, handheld devices and being online, when I rejoin the “real” world and meet people who haven’t been online or even used their computers for a week or more, or don’t see the point or use of social media tools. My first reaction tends to be negative, as if I’ve encountered a 21st century version of barbarism. I have to remind myself that my world is not theirs, no more than theirs is mine. And there are as many ways of being in the world and interacting with it as there are people.
Conversely, to use another example, others sometimes see me as a kind of barbarian because I’m not interested in something that is part of their identity, like athletics or fine cuisine. I recall an interview with John Lennon I read years ago (when my musical tastes were very particular). He spoke of the musical artists and songs that he liked. I was appalled! How could one of my music heroes like such worthless pop music! It was unthinkable.
But it was so and my world was limited and I was not the standard by which the world lived. And none of us are.
We all still embrace the class system because it is in our nature. Can we eliminate it? Probably not. What we can do, however, is question ourselves, our beliefs and our likes and dislikes.
We can also try to keep in mind that the world is a very big place and what we know of it, and the people living in it, is very limited. And just because we like something it doesn’t follow that someone else must.
One last thing … One of the reasons technology is such a huge aspect of our world currently is primarily because it appeals to people with money and therefore generates money (to the rich, perhaps, mainly for the latter reason). That’s not to say it doesn’t have beneficial aspects – it clearly does. But they are irrelevant beside its revenue generating aspect which is due to its appeal to the big, ill-defined middle class and, in another way, to the rich.
It is also likely helpful to the poor but they are not involved in the equation. They’re just an aside.