September 12, 2007

class, alternative cultures, and alienation

I read something interesting online on Class Matters (which is awesome) and I wanted to share it and see what you all thought. A link to the whole article is here.

The article is about the ways in which alternative subcultures of professional-middle-class progressives can prove alienating for working-class folks. Frankly, I can think of other groups of folks who might be just as alienated by the same situations.

A few years ago, I listened to week-by-week reports from a radical working-class friend who tried to join a corporate globalization group. He told me of snide comments about his fast food; elaborate group process that took hours and hours; insistence that everyone "perform" by answering a certain question at the beginning of the meeting; uniformly scruffy clothes that made his pressed shirts stand out; potlucks that were all tofu and whole grains; long ideological debates over side issues; and an impenetrable fog of acronyms and jargon. He soon quit in disgust. I wonder if the group members understood why he left.

For professional-middle-class progressives activists like myself, it's easy to understand why working-class people would be alienated by the mainstream culture of well-off people. After all, we tend to be alienated by it ourselves, because it represents values we've rejected, like greed and materialism. But the idea that working-class people would have any negative reactions to our own subculture, in particular our values-based "alternative" norms, tends not to occur to us.


The article goes on to pose some solutions. First, the author distinguishes between what she calls essential and inessential weirdness.

"An essential weirdness is one that couldn't be eliminated without doing a deep injustice to someone." An inessential weirdness is one that could be eliminated without causing this injustice. What do you think about this distinction between essential and inessential weirdness?

The article is full of good examples and specific ideas for solutions.

Are you part of a counter-culture like this? Have you ever thought of joining a group but been turned off by something like this? What turned you off? Do you think it was class related? How do you see class fitting into this issue?

In a related page on Class Matters there is a pretty good quote about a similar example that I find to be fairly common.

It used to make me laugh to see the clothing at these Boston coalition meetings. The low-income women on welfare would turn out dressed as if they were going to the Sunday social, and all these middle-class activists from Harvard and Boston College would turn out in Salvation Army clothes, having invested very little in personal hygiene products. That's something that used to annoy me about middle-class folks, who dressed down because they didn't want anybody to think they were rich, while the poor folks dressed up because they wanted to be taken seriously.

—John Anner, author of Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Justice Movements in Communities of Color

4 comments:

emily2 said...

A few years ago, I listened to week-by-week reports from a radical working-class friend who tried to join a corporate globalization group. He told me of snide comments about his fast food; elaborate group process that took hours and hours; insistence that everyone "perform" by answering a certain question at the beginning of the meeting; uniformly scruffy clothes that made his pressed shirts stand out; potlucks that were all tofu and whole grains; long ideological debates over side issues; and an impenetrable fog of acronyms and jargon.

Ugh-alicious. Reminds me of WHRB!

Okay, kidding aside. Sounds horrid. A whole lot of talking, and not much "doing." A lot of red tape and gibberish, and is, ironically, the same type of crap that is skewered in anti-corporate culture films like "Office Space."

I am from a middle class background, and I find the type of "rebellion" by embracing alternative cultures off-putting. Ostensible rejection of suburban yuppie values by suburbanites who wish to distinguish themselves from their "soulless" yuppie parents by behaving "weirdly"... it's so predictable. Sanctimonious twits. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

(Okay, rant over.)

icarus said...

this reminded me of this older Quench page.

garçon-fille said...

I would like to point out that it isn't necessarily safe to assume that people wearing salvation army clothes are rich kids who are dressed down. My family isn't living in poverty, but we are definitely on the lower end of middle class. We get by on credit, but we have more debt than I even want to think about. Even though I have a couple of nicer outfits, I tend to 'dress down' because I find dress clothes extremely uncomfortable.

However, if the trend among 'poor people' of wearing nice clothes to be taken seriously is true, I think that's really sad for a lot of reasons.

wannatakethisoutside said...

garcon-fille

That certainly wasn't what I meant and if I came off that way, it's only due to my not being a great writer.