The masses against the classes

I haven’t blogged for ages because of being busy, so this is all going to seem like so much rambling, I’m sorry, but there’s lots in my head and it’s probably going to seem more stream of consciousness than clear articulation…

The module I’m teaching on at the moment is looking at different theories of culture and how people have conceived culture, the ‘masses’, ideology and various other concepts we cultural studies types love to think about. It’s been both interesting and depressing thus far.

For example, one of the things we’ve been looking at is class and the way that the working class have often been marginalised or derided by those in power and with influence. Whilst in the Edwardian age it was Virginia Woolf describing people as fat, white slugs and DH Lawrence fantasising about creating gas chambers to put us all to sleep (they were such a lovely bunch, Edwardian writers and artists), today it’s still prevalent. It’s not just in the depictions of ‘chavs’ and ‘pramfaces’ and ‘hoodies’, which we might recognise as derogatory but sometimes in more sinister ways.

Perhaps the most notable and prevalent example at the moment is Jade Goody. There has been a lot of discussion about whether dying in public is ‘acceptable’, whether making money for her sons to receive an education and a ‘better life than she had’ is noble or exploitative and so on. Some people have argued that it seemed OK for people like John Diamond and Terry Pratchett to write or make programmes about their illnesses, because they were more culturally acceptable people, whereas a working class young woman doing the same through her media of magazines, tabloids and reality telly is less valuable. It’s not as clear cut as that, as Dame Victoria Coren points out – Diamond was also castigated at the time for discussing his death in public, although now he’s seen as more ‘noble’. However, there is still clearly a class prejudice going on. The internet, of course, can’t be seen as neccessarily representing all public opinion, it generally brings out the nuttiest of folk, but the level of vitriol on the likes of the Guardian website about her is actually quite shocking. How dare this common woman get ideas above her station and become famous? How dare she make money? How dare she talk about such vulgar things as life and death? And her sending her boys away to school also raises a lot of questions – why is it that there are still public schools (for the Americans, this means private. I know.) and suchlike, and why is it that they are still seen as prestigious?

Class hasn’t gone away. Nobody is sure these days what exactly middle class and working class are (and I’ve blogged on this before) and whether there is an ‘underclass’, but let’s be clear, we still perceive others and ourselves roughly in these terms. I know that I live in a city with two main groups of people. To stereotype grossly, and probably somewhat unfairly: those who are more working class/”under”class, who shop on a tight budget, for whom the environment, healthy living and so on may not be as significant; and those who are artsy, Guardian-reading types who love the idea of locally sourced, organic, fair trade, whatever. Clearly many people straddle bits of both, but there does seem to be, in general terms, two camps. I know I am in the second one, too. I may have come more from the first one and may have known lots of people in it, but I can’t claim to be part of it now. I don’t mean that one thing is better than the other, and nor do I believe the lie that those in the first group can’t ‘afford’ to care about the concerns about the second. There are elements of truth in that statement but only elements. Things are more complicated than that, and a lot of it is culturally ingrained and reinforced in all kinds of ways – the shops we get in our communities, the things we see in our papers and magazines, the way our families and friends have ‘always’ done things – hegemony.

Same with gender, of course. We were discussing gender in terms of hegemony today, and it’s just so depressing. It’s good that the students can start to ask questions, but bad there’s so much that needs questioning. When we were discussing gender roles and how little things have changed, one of the boys said ‘well, that’s just… how it is, isn’t it?’ – exactly how hegemony operates. And it’s so utterly depressing. They, and I, can recognise the stupidity of diet adverts and products all being aimed at women when more men in the country are overweight than women. Every woman I know struggles with her weight, yet every man I know is also overweight, perhaps more so, and I only know one who has articulated those struggles. They, and I, recognise the craziness of the beauty industry, and yet we buy into it, but men don’t. Many of the girls said they cook and clean for their boyfriends because the men ‘won’t’ or ‘can’t’ do it, even though they totally know this is bollocks. They can see how women in their knickers on a magazine isn’t that empowering, yet they are struggling with the contradictions of a culture that also says it is (because then it makes it OK for men to look at women in their pants after all).

I don’t know who these people are that fed people with the messages that ‘feminism had gone too far’ or that somehow ‘white British working class people are being neglected’ or ‘a man isn’t a man’ anymore or any of these other ideologies that seemed to begin surfacing in the 90s and have seeped into the country. Obviously the Daily Mail, but beyond that? Do committees of white middle class middle aged men sit around and decide how the world should run as cultural studies theories would imply? Probably not, but I find it perplexing nonetheless. People I went to school with, come from the same background as, join Facebook groups telling immigrants to fuck off home, slagging off people who are ‘bad parents’ and should rot in hell (even if most of them don’t believe in hell), telling the government off for banning St George’s Day – a memo I seem to have missed – and so on. Where do these sentiments come from?

The students also find the ideas of right/left (politically) confusing. No wonder. The ‘far right’ of the BNP are encroaching on old Labour territory by targetting working class white people and telling them that somehow they are oppressed and their country is under ‘threat’ and feeding them insecurities. In the meantime, UKIP and the like try to court the Conservative, more middle class market, with similar ideologies to the BNP but expressed in a more anti-Europe than anti-black/asian/gay stance. The territory of tolerance and equality, the left/liberal stance then becomes the preserve of mostly middle-class, mostly educated people. And I sit typing all this, knowing that in academia, particularly in cultural studies, you pretty much have to be left/liberal. I’ve never met a right-wing person in my field. I can’t conceive of it. Which probably makes me also pretty intolerant and blinkered in other ways.

Ultimately, all these issues: gender, race, class etc all seem to be about territorialism. We want to protect our ground, we want everyone else to be like us, we are frightened of what we are not, what we do not understand. It seems such a base human instinct – but why? And why haven’t we evolved out of it yet?


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