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.