Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Class, Part VIII: Don't mention it!

I don't watch much television (except Law and Order--yes, I know, it's a sickness), I subscribe to two magazines(The Sporting News and Food Porn Bimonthly, more commonly known as Cook's Illustrated), and I skip a lot of the bestsellers, especially the ones that have a reputation for being poorly written, though I read a lot of books. I also read the NY Times, and a lot of lefty weblogs (witness my first lame attempt at a blogroll), but not Time or Newsweek. I hate shopping malls and couldn't tell you the last time I went to one. I don't watch any of the reality shows. I don't watch the news. I don't know what sitcoms are on, and I don't watch any of them. (And, really, when have any of the standard shows, other than the early years of Roseanne, ever talked about class?) But I also don't go to the opera, the symphony, or the theater. I rarely get to the movies (though I used to be better about that), and we probably don't rent more than three or four a year. I go to baseball games, sometimes, and I like watching sports, in general, because, unlike most other things put on view, you really don't know how it's going to turn out. In other words, my interaction with many of the main vectors of any aspect of our culture is pretty limited.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, the short answer is that, especially in a large society, some sorting mechanisms are useful. How do we know whether someone is Like Us? We look at what they wear, we listen to what they say, we find out how much education they have, we find out what (or whether) they read, we find out what kind of entertainment they like and where they go for vacations and where they go out to dinner. Our own choices and experiences are on display, as well. These choices are mediated by and through the media of and the culture(s) in which the interactions occur. We're often trying to figure out who's a threat, who's a friend, who's an enemy, out with whom we want to hang. The more you are like me (with a broad notion of what "like me" can mean), the more I will assume you share with me, in terms of attitudes, beliefs, income, etc.

Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, is one of the foremost commentators on social and political life. She notes that good manners (and modesty), however defined by the culture around one, are available to everyone, regardless of income. As Miss Manners notes, even though it's how we treat others that is relevant, rather than how much money is available to us, we present ourselves in a variety of arenas, and the requirements for fitting into those arenas may vary wildly. Those of us who were/are geeks, for example, have had the delightful experience of knowing that we were regarded as geeks by the Popular Kids and treated accordingly. We recognized that the alpha social groups, like all groups, required specific behaviors and dress, and we also recognized that merely aping the behaviors and adopting the dress would not be sufficient to get us admitted to the group (were we to want that)--it was more likely to bring unpleasant attention than anything else.

High school notwithstanding, we adopt the dress and mannerisms of the people we want to accept us as one of their own, and in a large, amorphous, mobile society--and one without a hereditary aristocracy--such as ours, there's a certain amount of freedom and latitude with regard to those signifiers, even as there may be very strict requirements in particular subgroups. I could wear one of my suits, for example, and fit in reasonably well wherever a suit would be appropriate attire, although people who expect the very most up-to-date style or a particular designer would be disappointed, as would someone who expected spike heels. At the same time, I would not try to pull off gang colors, or high fashion, or sweatshirts with calico cats appliqued on them; I don't know those languages, and I would likely look ridiculous, both to the people who usually wear those items and to the people with whom I'm more closely aligned, appearance-wise. Trivial though these examples are in some ways, you can probably see that it's at least theoretically possible to fit in, unless the social group to which you aspire requires expenditures you cannot afford or unless you have difficulty determining to which things you must pay attention (I'm thinking here of people with autism-spectrum disorders, who have difficulty identifying aspects of social situations and interactions). If you don't like the things your desired group does or wears you have a different problem.

For people who are not liminal, there are few decisions involved: they do what they have always done, and what their families and friends and the people with whom they grew up do. For those of us who have taken advantage of some of that mobility, we have a different task--we have to figure out which things we absolutely must or must not do in order to fit into the stratum we have chosen, and we generally try to develop at least a little personal style within what we understand those boundaries to be. That's not terribly difficult, of course, for someone who's reasonably observant and who has some idea regarding the things about which s/he must be observant.

At least in my case, though, my liminality has made me raise an eyebrow toward both "popular" and "high" culture. It's not that I disdain all popular culture, mind you (the Law and Order confession should serve as evidence of that)--it's not that I think that I'm above it all. And it's not that I disdain high culture, for that matter, even though I think some people think that your love of the opera is evidence of your refined sensibilitie; one could as easily argue that it's evidence of the amount of money you have to spend or the kinds of music to which you listened as a child. So, in the case of both popular and high culture, what I am, mostly, is suspicious of it, in the sense of wondering who's profiting from its promulgation.

Much of the popular culture out there seems kind of pointless at best, and vulgar or stupid at worst, and much high culture seems to be valued for the evidence it provides of your taste rather than for any intrinsic worth. I probably sound like a right-wing culture warrior in that regard, but the difference is that I don't see it as my job to monitor other people's viewing, listening, and dressing options and choices, even if their choices bore or annoy or offend me.

I'm distressed not by the pointlessness, vulgarity, or stupidity, per se, at least not most of the time. I am distressed that these cultural enterprises are being bought and sold and presented as though they were the only or most important information about the world around us, and I'm distressed at the concomitant lack of attention to the facts of many matters. (The longer version of this rant is in the works.) That is, entertainment serves not as entertainment for its own sake, or as a mechanism to provoke thought or feeling, or even as decoration; it serves as a means to distract us from more urgent issues, and it serves as a profit center for the companies who produce the entertainment.

And, really, the stuff that is being sold, commodified, around us is our lives. The most depressing thing I've seen recently in this category is a book providing advice on how to have a "unique" wedding. Okay, look, if it's a BOOK already, that means that thousands of people will read exactly the same advice, and, if they all take that advice, none of them will be the least bit unique. It's like that scene in Life of Brian:
BRIAN: Good morning.
FOLLOWERS: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!...
BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I've got one or two things to say.
FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.
BRIAN: Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we're all individuals!
BRIAN: You're all different!
FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
DENNIS: I'm not.
ARTHUR: Shhhh.
FOLLOWERS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.
BRIAN: You've all got to work it out for yourselves!
FOLLOWERS: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!
BRIAN: Exactly!
FOLLOWERS: Tell us more!
BRIAN: No! That's the point! Don't let anyone tell you what to do! Otherwise-- Ow! No!
MANDY: Come on, Brian. That's enough. That's enough.
FOLLOWERS: Oooooh. That wasn't a minute!
So, really, the conundrum is that, on one hand, we want some kind of shorthand, some way of sorting people, and, arguably, some agreement on an assortment of dimensions of sorting. This isn't even necessarily a bad thing, although it certainly can be (e.g., when people who are hiring employees think of "someone who is like me" in terms of skin color or religion or genitalia, for example). On the other hand, restricting yourself to people who think and look and dress exactly like you is boring, tedious, and likely to lead to literal and figurative inbreeding of all sorts.

How, then, do we choose the principles by which we sort people? We'd like to claim that it's a meritocracy, that we have correctly identified the requirements for a given task, and we evaluate all candidates fairly in terms of their relative abilities to meet those requirements. We also know that's really not true, and probably cannot be true. We don't always have a full understanding of the requirements, for example, or we may discover that some sorts of tasks can be performed in a multitude of ways. So we use sorting hats, albeit ones that are less efficient and more prone to error than the one at Hogwarts, and the liminal among us recognize that those sorting mechanisms are particularly poor at identifying the people who are good at interstitial work.

In my own life, for example, I've recognized that one of my talents is a certain kind of facilitation. In many circumstances, I can be quite good at listening, at rephrasing, at eliciting or putting forth the general form of a statement, in ways that help the assembled group complete its tasks. I enjoy this work, too, and I've come to recognize that it's quite valuable--it enables people to understand each other and to move on, and, at its best, it elicits formulations, strategies, solutions, or problem definitions that would not have emerged in a non-group or non-facilitated setting. I think that my skills in this regard are a direct result of my background, of the liminality to which I've been referring over these many posts. In order to move from one class to another, you learn to pay attention to a lot of subtle cues, and it's that very ability to pay attention that makes a good facilitator. (The other two necessary qualities are being articulate and being able to submerge one's own ego and ideas--one must run the meeting without dominating it.) It's also the case, however, that these skills are severely undervalued in most arenas. (Consulting firms may value this highly; I don't really know. If they do, I'd love to know how they assess it.)

It's this very facility, however, this liminality, that also causes my jaundiced eye. We cling to the familiar and the comfortable (even those of us who have moved away from or reinvented our initial comfort spheres), but we want to defend it on rational terms rather than on comfort terms. On a societal level, though, the effort to find the least common denominator, to find the version of events or people or comedy that feels most comfortable and familiar, merely serves to reinforce the biases that are already in place. But you knew that already.

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