Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Class and Belonging

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Australians have long held to the self-satisfied belief that we live in a classless society, free from the rigidity of our British origins. But it's a myth—witness our revulsion of pokies as opposed to casinos and horse racing, or demonization of families who 'waste' their Baby Bonus on flatscreen TVs and Victoria Bitter. Jennifer Wilson 'rose above her station' and still feels like an intruder.

Disclosure: I was born into the British working class. At the age of seven, due to my mother’s upwardly mobile marriage, I entered the professional middle class. I am the first person in my family to have a university education.

There’s nothing like straddling the classes to make one aware of the power they retain as a hierarchical categorising system in society. There’s also no doubt that the system has become more permeable. While my grandmother (a servant in an upper class household) and my grandfather (a Yorkshire coal miner from the age of thirteen) could not have escaped the rigid parameters of the British working class, my mother achieved this through marriage. I then realised her dream of the education denied to her by her family because she was female. My uncle got what little money there was to send a child to grammar school. This cluster of injustices was a source of profound distress and resentment for my very smart mother, throughout her entire life.

Last week, author and playwright Van Badham wrote this piece in The Guardian, titled ‘The moral case for gambling’, in which she considers the role class plays in the current campaign to curtail gambling opportunities through legislation. An extract:

Given the popularity of gambling in this country, I wonder if the public shaming of Australian gamblers has more to do with bourgeois loathing of working-class habits than any genuine moral crusade for public good. It must be very confusing for those who base their social self-esteem on the accumulation of money to witness a pastime that involves the happy sacrifice of it.

Badham’s observations proved controversial, with lengthy arguments erupting on Twitter, and this rebuttal in the journal Overland.

I was particularly struck by the phrase ‘bourgeois loathing of working-class habits.’ It reminded me, somewhat painfully, of how my mother insisted that I never speak of my grandparents’ circumstances to anyone outside of the family. As we’d moved to Australia by now, any back-story could be safely concocted. What her insistence told me was that our family was one we should be ashamed of, and that people wouldn’t like or accept us if they knew our origins. The question of class did not occur to me until many years later.

I don’t think my mother was paranoid. I think her fears that we would be regarded as outsiders in a social circle that valued my stepfather, the town’s general practitioner, were concrete. I think there was, and may still be, a ‘bourgeois loathing’ of the working class, and to a large extent we fitted a stereotype. My mother ‘had to get married’ because she was pregnant with me, the marriage didn’t last, and we returned to live with her parents in their council house until she married my stepfather. These events were felt as shameful, and there was a prevailing myth that only working class girls got themselves into that kind of trouble.

There still exists a certain middle class contempt in some quarters for single mothers, expressed in a variety of ways including the allegations that they use their Baby Bonuses to buy wide screen TVs, and that they continue to have babies in order to live a life of unemployed luxury at the tax payer’s expense. Middle class single mothers, who are educated, respectably employed or on maternity leave are not subjected to anything like the same contemptuous judgments.

Somehow, my mother managed to rid herself and me of our family’s broad Yorkshire accent, and we sounded generically English. We got away with that. However, the shame I felt at both denying my grandparents, and the fear that that was something dreadfully wrong with them, has never entirely dissipated.

Many years later, supported by feminism and a climate in which working class origins were worn like a badge of honour, I came out about my family. My mother was mortified.

This is class as it is lived. One of the many methods human beings devise to divide themselves from one another, with no purpose other than to bolster a sense of superiority necessary to justify otherwise inexplicable entitlement, and access to power.

As Van Badham argues (and as I also wrote in 2011 in this piece for The Drum, titled ‘Pornography, the Internet and class’) there is good reason to believe that moral panics on topics such as gambling and pornography are driven by the middle class not in part because of a queasy distaste for the entertainments of those they consider culturally, aesthetically and economically inferior, solely because of the circumstances of their birth.

Indeed, I’ve wondered if these moral panics are a consequence of the working class invading bourgeois territories to a greater extent than ever before, exposing middle class children to an aesthetic their parents find both alarming, and entirely uncontrollable.

This is not to deny the very real dangers and difficulties with both gambling and pornography, as well as the destructive aspect of alcohol and drug abuse. However, the answer is surely not widespread prohibition as a consequence of bourgeois moral panic, but rather the political will to address disadvantage, and the exploitation of disadvantage by those who frequently earn their considerable wealth off the backs of the working class and underclass.

There is nothing inherently wrong in gambling, pornography, and alcohol and drugs. The problems arise when any of these things become addictive, causing private and public chaos. Thus far, it seems to me we have as a society entirely failed to come to grips with the problem of addiction, instead flailing about in horrified outrage, under the delusion that prohibiting or severely restricting access will prevent addiction in the first place.

Addiction of any kind is more obvious in working class and underclass environments. The middle and upper classes have the means to both fund and conceal their addictions, and they are not objects of an authority’s surveillance to anything like the same extent; indeed, they are complicit in that surveillance.

There seems to be an unfortunate tendency among humans to measure our worth by comparing ourselves to others whom we find ways to assess as inferior. This tendency expresses itself in racism, in sexism, in economic divisions, job status; in short, just about anything that can be used as a comparison with which to find another inferior to oneself. Having found someone in some way worse than me, I can then comfort myself that I’m not as bad. Dwellers in a Western patriarchy, we are inculcated from birth with the need to do better at something than somebody else, and in this way to come to understand who we are. Class is but one of the methods of assessment, one that is stacked with privilege.

My grandfather loved his workingmen’s social club, which was largely funded by the mine owners. There were no poker machines in it at that time. Every Saturday and Sunday he trotted down the hill from our place to meet up with his mates and drink beer. Sometimes he took me, in my pram. They fed me potato chips and lemonade, and nobody thought it strange that a man hauled his baby granddaughter around on his days off. On more than one occasion Granddad forgot me and went home for his dinner, leaving me asleep and full of junk food in the club. My outraged grandmother, who had an acutely developed concern about what people would think, finally forbade him to take me. Granddad gambled on the horses and the dogs; however, he gave over his wages to his wife and she doled him out an allowance, so his spending never got out of hand.

When I was a teenager, and visited my grandparents from Australia, Granddad warned me never to get above my station. That way, he implied, lay misery, dishonesty and grief. It was far too late for that warning. I’d been sent to boarding school with wealthy girls. I’d learned to keep my mouth shut about our lowly origins. I spoke well.

But what I learned on that trip, and have never forgotten, is that I didn’t belong anywhere. Not with my beloved grandparents. Not in the social circles in which I now moved. I was faking it in both places. I was winging it. I was waiting for somebody to find out, in both places, that I was a fraud.

Like Van Badham and her supporters, I have a deep mistrust of bourgeois values, while simultaneously being—inescapably, now—middle class. I once tweeted, ‘I hate the middle class. How do I get out of it?’ to which Jane Caro replied, ‘You can’t. It’s a curse.’

The reality is, any human group that uses ‘othering’ as a means to reassure itself is in the grip of a curse from which it can’t escape, unless it is able to recognize and value our common humanity before the circumstances of our births. Class gives us an illusion of belonging if we are strongly enough embedded, as does nationalism, for example. The need to belong is powerful. We devise all manner of ways in which to create a sense of belonging. Yet we seem unable to envision belonging on a larger scale: our belonging to the community of human beings who struggle daily on this planet to live our lives as best we can.

Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer Wilson is an independent social and political commentator, writer, and consultant psychotherapist.

Follow her on twitter @NoPlaceforSheep