being poor is now morally repugnant

I discovered an article today that was written last month by Suzanne Moore. In it Moore argues that we have lost our compassion for certain kinds of persons (poor ones), and shifted instead towards contempt. The piece is summed up with her closing comments:

Poverty is not a sign of collective failure but individual immorality. The psychic coup of neo-liberal thinking is just this: instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves. This disgust is a growth industry. We lay this moral bankruptcy at the feet of the poor as we tell ourselves we are better than that. [Emphasis added.]

A couple of years ago I worked for three months as a personal assistant to a disabled university student (it was a fun job, but sadly she dropped out of college prematurely, leaving me jobless…again). One of the nicest things about the job was that I got to audit all of her courses. She was studying sociology and social policy.

One of the most interesting sociology modules I sat in on was on understanding our categories of identity (gender, race etc.) and examining them in relation to agency and structure (how much power do we hold as individual agents, and how much power comes from our pre-existing social structures). All categories of identity are linked. She argued that one doesn’t have for example a gender identity and then, separate to that, a class identity; all identities are connected. The implication of this is that if gender categories are unequal, and class categories are unequal, then women from working class backgrounds are more unequal than women from middle class backgrounds.

One of the categories of identity addressed was class and social stratification. The lecturer made a strong case that class remains an issue that is alive and kicking in Irish society. One of the papers associated with this module was called Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle Class Identities by Stephanie Lawler (Sociological Review 2005). (Unfortunately I don’t have access to a link of the paper, but if you have membership with a good library, you should look it up and read it.) It’s an excellent paper, but I’m going to butcher it here by breaking it down into a couple of points.

Lawler effectively argues that the middle class which has arisen in the UK over the last 150 years has consistently defined itself as against the working classes. She focuses on articulations of disgust at working class existence in the British media and other public fora and in particular the ‘othering’ of the middle classes which creates a comfortable and unchallenged attitude of US and THEM.  Class has become a racial issue with disgust aimed at the “white working classes” with a particular folk-demonization of women, zoning in to viciously criticize all aspects of their appearance and lifestyle. Thus being middle class is about what you are not (i.e. not a disgusting waste of space). Middle class culture has become the only acceptable social norm and anything below it is not a class with a culture of its own (a subculture) but rather a sub class, entirely lacking in its own culture.

I felt, in that lecture, positively ashamed of my own latent attitude to working class communities up to that point.  That lecturer showed me my attitude for what it was:  class snobbery from a privileged bitch who thought dressing “alternative” and turning her nose up at X-Factor made her morally decent.

Taking this conversation down a notch, consider the socially acceptable term used for someone who is working class – in particular someone who wears tracksuits or pyjamas during the day and speaks with a thick inner city accent: scumbag. Consider that for a moment. Scumbag. It’s a pretty disgusting term. How has this become ok?

Back when I had a Facebook account, an acquaintance of mine on there (a nice guy whose company I have always enjoyed I should add), started a humorous little project called “Scumwatch”. As far as I am aware, “Scumwatch” is still going strong. It consists of taking photos of people in inner city Dublin whom my friend considered to be “scum”. You usually qualified for this title by wearing a lot of make-up and wearing pyjamas, or if you were buying a crate of beer in the middle of the day. This little photography project was greeted with absolute glee by all commentators. (I would be highly surprised if there was one commentator amongst them who did not have a university degree.) “Scumwatch” is a very good example of how we have created clear divisions between the classes in Ireland without any cognisance of the poisonous attitude that this betrays.

Quite apart from this being poisonous, we actually lose out when we take this attitude. Almost every man I work with in the prison would fall into the category of “scum” in the eyes of middle class Ireland, as would their partners and children. This attitude towards them was present before they committed their crimes…which I think you’ll agree is quite telling. My placement is set to last for two years (6 months down so far) and already it feels far too short. I came home from the prison yesterday absolutely bursting with love for the men I work with and said to my husband that (a) I am dreading leaving them when the placement is complete and (b) that I couldn’t imagine loving other prisoners in other contexts as much as I love the men in my prison! This is not what I expected to happen! In my arrogance I expected to bring love, tolerance and kindness into the prison; not to receive it myself in abundance, which is what has taken place. If I truly believed that the men in this prison were scumbags and should rot there forever, then not only do I deny them their dignity but I deny myself of themselves. I lose out on sharing in their lives and being in relationship with them. Somehow, middle class culture has forgotten that quite simply, underneath the exterior of Burberry or loutish behaviour or peroxide hair is a beating heart. How can we have allowed this to happen?

Advertisements

8 Responses to being poor is now morally repugnant

  1. This is very good stuff.

    The word that i hear most often isn’t scumbag but knacker.

    I suppose the quick answer to your question is the heart is a factory for ways to hate and separate but more specifically i I think the answer to your question has something to do with fear. I feel it in myself when im in “rough areas”. I see it at work where there are different classes working side by side and i most especially see it when teens from different classes mix at youth clubs.

    The thing is that i have experiences that have justified that fear. A knife was put to my throat one time. However i also have experiences that resonate exactly with what you feel in prison. Working class people have a way of being loving that i love!!

    I was at estate management meeting a few weeks ago, everyone was working class. In the space of two minutes a verbal fight with alot of bite in it and unrelated to it real progress in the work of the committee happened. The honesty and integrity of these people brought change and the potential for violence. I simply think its hard for people to see the latter when the very thing that encourages the latter causes the former.

  2. It’s funny Richie, I’d consider yourself working class, but I suppose in the same way as me, your immediate cultural setting has shifted, probably due to quite a few factors, not least your work, and that rich woman you went and married. ;)

    Fear is another issue all right. I note that on Scumwatch a lot of the commentators warned my friend that one of these days he was going to get the shit kicked out of him for taking the photos, which is not entirely implausible.

    One of the things I have come to realise is that violent behaviour (whatever about violent hearts, I have one of those myself) doesn’t just fall out of the sky (small consolation to the man with the knife at his throat). It is rarely “senseless” or “random” although it might appear that way to the victim. Continuing attitudes of hatred actually contribute to that culture of violence though.

    The heart as a “factory for ways to hate and separate” is very apt.

    The word “knacker” and the marginalisation of the travelling community is another issue not entirely unrelated to this one. Last night on Midweek on TV3 I sat open mouthed as that reprehensible Fine Gael counsellor from Wexford, Patrick Kavanagh, claimed that travellers are “ethnically cleansing” the settled community there. This is what passes for civilized discourse now.

    I suppose the bit that got me most in all of this was the idea that I had subconsciously held that working class communities actually have no culture of their own – nothing meaningful anyway, and that the middle classes are the bastions of culture. That idea has been well and truly blown out of the water for me…not least because of the kind of art, poetry and music being produced by the men I work with, but because being passionate about football and Burberry *is* culture, even if you prefer rugby and Chanel. Speaking of which, I didn’t even touch on class as defined by consumption patterns, and the bizarre beliefs that exist around hierarchies of consumption!

  3. :)
    Herself aint rich..but her parents aint doing so bad..

    I wasnt actually talking about travellers but the fact that the moniker of choice for working class seems to be knacker. At least it is in south county dublin.

    I dont think ive ever succumbed to thinking the working class have no culture but definitely that whatever it is they have its inferior.

  4. “The implication of this is that if gender categories are unequal, and class categories are unequal, then women from working class backgrounds are more unequal than women from middle class backgrounds.”

    Hmmm. Not convinced, logically. Simplifying down to only 4 people in the world to show my point – one middle class man, one middle class woman, one working class man and one working class woman.

    Now, suppose:-
    Person A – Middle Class Man’s ‘well off index’ (i.e. whatever we’re measuring for inequality) is 10
    Person B – Middle Class Woman’s is 4
    Person C – Working Class Man’s is 2
    Person D – Working Class Woman’s is 6

    Argument is
    IF Premise X (average of A and C > Average of B and D) [Man > Woman]
    AND Premise Y(average of A and B > average of C and D) [Middle Class > Working Class]
    THEN Conclusion (B > D) [Middle Class Woman > Working Class Woman]

    We have:-
    Average man is (10+2)/2 = 6
    Average woman is (4+6)/2 = 5
    So Average Man is better off than Average Woman. (Premise A is fulfilled).

    Average middle class person has well off index of (10+4)/2 = 7
    Average Working Class person = (2+6)/2 = 4
    So Middle class > Working Class. (Premise B is fulfilled).

    Therefore by the Argument, Premise X AND Premise Y => Conclusion (B >D).

    But clearly, 4 is NOT greater than 6. Hence we have a contradiction with true premises implying a false conclusion, and the argument is therefore not valid.

    Nerd much? Couldn’t resist, which tells you much of what you need to know about me…

  5. “The implication of this is that if gender categories are unequal, and class categories are unequal, then women from working class backgrounds are more unequal than women from middle class backgrounds.”

    Hmmm. Not convinced, logically. Simplifying down to only 4 people in the world to show my point – one middle class man, one middle class woman, one working class man and one working class woman.

    Now, suppose:-
    Person A – Middle Class Man’s ‘well off index’ (i.e. whatever we’re measuring for inequality) is 10
    Person B – Middle Class Woman’s is 4
    Person C – Working Class Man’s is 2
    Person D – Working Class Woman’s is 6

    Argument is
    IF Premise X (average of A and C > Average of B and D) [Man > Woman]
    AND Premise Y(average of A and B > average of C and D) [Middle Class > Working Class]
    THEN Conclusion (B > D) [Middle Class Woman > Working Class Woman]

    We have:-
    Average man is (10+2)/2 = 6
    Average woman is (4+6)/2 = 5
    So Average Man is better off than Average Woman. (Premise A is fulfilled).

    Average middle class person has well off index of (10+4)/2 = 7
    Average Working Class person = (2+6)/2 = 4
    So Middle class > Working Class. (Premise B is fulfilled).

    Therefore by the Argument, Premise X AND Premise Y => Conclusion (B >D).

    But clearly, 4 is NOT greater than 6. Hence we have a contradiction with true premises implying a false conclusion, and the argument is therefore not valid.

    Nerd much? Couldn’t resist, which tells you much of what you need to know about me…

    On the actual point of the blog, couldn’t agree more :) I’d also say that – having come from a working class background – the snobbery runs both ways, and there can be damage from attitudes towards perceived middle class things, like education (little snide comments from relatives because you’re the first to go to university or grammar school, or got good exam results).

  6. Sorry about your double comment Andy; the comments of all first-time commentators sit in my inbox awaiting approval. You’ll be able to post comments from now on without awaiting moderation.

    As for the maths…no flaws. But it would be unusual for a working class woman to have a net worth that is higher than a middle class woman’s to begin with, so your theory is based on an anamoly. :)

  7. It was mostly tongue in cheek, but I’m genuinely not convinced of her theory. The anomaly is only an anomaly because in that specific situation, she is actually begging the question – we know in advance that it’s unlikely for a working class woman to have a net worth higher than a middle class woman, so her theory doesn’t actually tell us anything in that situation. It certainly could be otherwise, given different identities.

    E.g. Imagine a situation where all jobs are granted by (male) homophobes who love the thought of two women together, but more generally don’t like working with women. There are twice as many male applicants.

    They therefore refuse to hire all gay men, most women, but hire all lesbians who apply. Being gay would then generally be a disadvantaged class, being a women also, but being a gay woman would actually be better than being a straight one. Again, I know the world ain’t so, and it’s not a great example, but I think it’s closer to plausibility.

  8. Andy your examples make absolutely no sense. Why not use real-life examples? Let’s take a woman, from a developing African nation, who is gay. Any one of these categories of identity is likely to make her life more challenging. Life is typically easier for men than women – you are likely to work more to earn less and you are more susceptible to violence. Life in her socio-economic context means that she will probably be poor, which brings enormous challenges in terms of education and health. Being a lesbian means that on top of all this she will face religious and social discrimination, and be at a higher risk of sexual assault than her straight counterpart.

    Or let’s take the common and well documented issue of adoption. Children who are adopted generally face more struggles than those who are raised by their biological parents, even with all other factors being equal. Add to that the complexity of a child of being adopted cross-culturally, and their problems multiply.

    What this lecturer was describing was not so much theory as observed fact. I don’t really know what your difficulty with it is.

%d bloggers like this: