Poor Writing and Ethical Hangovers

To my surprise, even after a year of sporadic posting (and nearly nine months without a picture of a monkey), there are still people reading this blog.  While, in general, I find this flattering (if a little confusing), it’s a bit unfortunate to have a readership anytime my writing is terrible and I say deeply problematic things.  The last post about my own experiences with social class in England—which earned me an e-mail from a troubled friend, for which I am extremely grateful—is a case in point.

The slightly pedantic and poorly articulated goal of my last post was to muse about the English class system.  In the United States, we seem to be reluctant to suggest that anyone belongs to a class other than “middle”, a resistance that leads to the absurd outcome of Princeton students with parents worth millions who nonetheless claim to be “only” upper-middle.  Here, though, I’ve been assured that class very much “matters”.  While most of my conversations are with the unequivocal “winners” of that system, there seems to be a general sense that, in post-Thatcher, post-Socialist Britain, class is a fact of life that should be accepted.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve heard a good explanation of what the class system in England actually is; most people seem reticent to admit that class has anything to do with economic opportunity, and instead talk about culture, education, or work ethic.

While I think social classes are (unfortunately) very real, though, that doesn’t mean that real people can be reduced to social class.  There are no such things as “chavs” or “white trash”; there are only people that we label as such, and people who eventually relent and begin to take those labels as their own.  My description of “chavs” was filled with horrible stereotypes, but I failed utterly to make the terrible absurdity of those stereotypes evident.  My portrait was a bit too specific to be made defensible by claiming that I was only repeating what others had told me.  (At the end of the day, even if there are people who can be defined by drinking cheap beer and living of welfare, who cares—they’re not the ones who took us to War in Afghanistan or making huge profits at the expense of the world’s poor, after all.)

Ultimately, that last post was intended to be a vehicle for the purpose to which this blog, inevitably, seems to return, which is publically flagellating myself for my own political and ethical shortcomings.  This time, though, it took a trusted friend to make those weaknesses clear to me.  The scary thing is that, being at Oxford, concepts like “chav”—which would have just drawn blank stares from me two years ago—have become meaningful, because even if there are no real “chavs” out there, I’m still using that category every day to make sense of the world around me.  This is not to blame my social and academic milieu for personal flaws.  It’s been my choice that, in the name of being a “cultural observer”, I’ve largely stopped challenging my own assumptions and biases and those of the people around me.

I love Oxford.  But—in contrast to how I felt just a month or two ago—I now know that it is time for me to leave.  In the last month, I’ve attended lavish parties and even watched the Royal Wedding.  I’ve avoided passing judgment on them—despite that I would have abhorred them as an undergraduate—under the name of neutrality and relativism.  I’m ready, though, to stop being a tourist and an observer, and to get back to being an activist and an ethical being.  Those labels are real and they do matter.

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3 thoughts on “Poor Writing and Ethical Hangovers

  1. I appreciated and related to your previous post, but maybe that’s because as someone who has engaged with British culture for much of my adolescent and young adult life, I’ve moved in a world in which there are chavs for some time now.

    So in that vein: I think that Britain constructs a narrative of class as central to its culture in part because it is less troubling than having to engage with its recent history of imperialism; its long history of quasi-racism as visited against the Scottish, the Welsh, and the Irish; and its present social issues with regard to immigrants and minority ethnic communities. If it can focus on white trash–whether villifying them or focusing the efforts of the state on trying to make their lives better–it doesn’t have to worry about the degree to which low socioeconomic status maps onto racial minority status, and the degree to which both these groups are shut out from places like Oxford (though to be fair the percentage of students of color at Oxford is more proportionate to the percentage of student-age people of color in Britain as a whole than the media might have us believe. My friend ran the numbers once and it actually works out pretty favorably, though I don’t have the data now). In America, conversely, we’ve gotten used to thinking about race, and expert at crafting self-congratulatory narratives that acknowledge slavery was a bad thing but obscure the degree to which racism is still a problem in the country; as a result, we don’t talk about class. Nevertheless, people *are* class-conscious in Britain to a degree they aren’t in America. An English friend of mine who is currently a postdoc, has lived his adult life entirely within very elite educational institutions, and fits seamlessly into their culture still describes himself as working-class because his father is a tradesperson and his mother works in a public-sector service job. This makes him feel different to his fellow English academics whose parents are white-collar professionals in a way I can’t really appreciate. In college, I notice that my cultural background is different to those of my peers who grew up in much wealthier or much poorer milieux, but I sense that this is going to fade by the time I’m a proper adult. It already seems less stark than it did when I was a college freshman, but my friend’s anxiety seems very palpable even though he’s nearly 30.

    I find myself growing more comfortable with Oxford and worried about it while at the same time loving it. (Totally spent the day in the library instead of attending the May Day rally outside it…) It may be a good thing not to stay here too long, but I think you were wise to approach the experience with a certain amount of sociological neutrality all the same. These are tricky issues and they don’t go away, and I think it’s also important to remember when returning to the States that issues of inequality are still a very big deal in elite institutions there–and in some ways are all the more insidious because we don’t have huge obvious things like Christ Church to point to there.

    1. Emily, so lucky to have a historian around! I didn’t realize that there were people in the US who had heard of the term “chav” before coming here – that’s very interesting. I also had been thinking that class:Britain as race:US, although to some extent, people here are more willing to talk about both, which is perhaps why I feel uncomfortable.

      And, yes, I know that these kind of conflicts are very real in elite universities in the US. Perhaps we don’t see it that much in Princeton only because it’s in a rich suburb, not a working city (though, there is plenty of inequality in Princeton). I know Berkeley is no panacea, either, but I think there ARE places where it is easier to live in a social-justice oriented mindset, and I’m hoping the Bay Area is one of those.

      1. Yeah, I certainly don’t think it’s most people in the US–but I’ve been listening to Radio 4 for years. I agree that Berkeley is probably more conscious of its relationship to the real world than a lot of other elite universities are–and that’s worth a great deal.

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