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?