Class and Loathing in the Suburbs

It goes without saying that where and how you grow up (family dynamics, neighborhood, household income, schooling, etc.) plays a large part in shaping your conscious and unconscious attitudes.

Your version of “normal” is what you’re used to — what you’re continually exposed to.

So, growing up, my father’s “normal” was being a part of one of the many Italian families new to the country that lived in small houses where siblings shared one room and guilt could be thrown around for eating too much of the food in the house.

Fast forward a few decades and I was privileged enough that my normal and unexceptional was families living in big houses (with at least a two-car garage) on the west end of a city with each child in at least one extra-curricular activity that the family could afford after taking care of financial obligations related to the house, car(s), and other additional spends.

There is a great difference between, in the first place, consciously challenging and understanding your normal by contrasting it with that of others so you can be consciously sympathetic, and in the second place, simply having a distant intellectual understanding that some folks happen to be poor or worse off, acknowledging that as a mere fact of life, and moving on.

In either case, ignoring or pretending class and class divisions, attitudes, and norms don’t exist because you prefer to view the world in terms of individuals, and prefer to speak from that point of view, doesn’t make it so. Similarly, only paying intellectual lip service to the difficulties others face is inadequate.

Class is a blind spot for many classical liberals, and many people in general.

Unless your parents or guardians make a serious effort while you’re growing up, you make an effort as an adult, or life forces you to uncomfortably broaden and diversify your awareness and understanding of the circumstances others live with in a visceral way, you’ll believe that your normal burdens and opportunities are close to everyone’s normal — more or less with some factors, but on the same overall spectrum. You’ll feel like everyone has opportunity ahead of them there for the taking, and that their social status and level of success in life was really just dependent on their ability to seize that opportunity.

If you do feel it’s that simple, you haven’t felt the weight of a genuine understanding of your relative privilege.

What minimal (or merely academic) consideration for the circumstances of others does to people sheltered by an upper-middle class (or above) suburban lifestyle is numb their ability to truly appreciate the benefits and real impact of the massive amounts of privilege working in their favor — privilege that not everyone else has to nearly the same degree, whether we’re talking about income, education levels, or social capital, separately or in some combination.

I’m not talking about the ability to sympathize with someone on a very basic emotional level — like being able to relate to the anguish someone would go through dealing with a death in the family — hopefully we can all do that.

To try and truly understand the different pressures and obstacles created by the circumstances and realities a person or family of a different class may face requires a whole other level of sympathy. In other words, the genuine attempt to put yourself in someone else’s shoes without being overly influenced by your own normal as a framework to judge them (morally or otherwise) requires a conscious effort. Without that effort, you will become numb to the weight of the realities others face.

It’s this kind of numbing that causes the white male who grew up with an extremely comfortable lifestyle — now bringing in over $100,000 a year to his suburban home — to conclude that people with less money in the inner city (sometimes immigrants to boot) have less simply because they can’t fix their attitude, go to university, and get a nice job like himself. If they want more out of life, he may say, it’s so easy in this country of opportunity, and if someone doesn’t seize that opportunity, they must lack the motivation to do so or simply have chosen not to — they are completely a victim of their own choices, and nothing more. After all, look at the way he turned out after making the right moves!

On top of that kind of numbness, people who grow up in privileged circumstances sometimes form a subtle attitude of deserving of their standing. It is very important to highlight that this is crucially different than a sense of wanting to maintain the benefits that come with their family’s income level, formal education, and overall lifestyle and situation — a completely different point. Rather, this is the sentiment that because that level is where their life is, there is no reason it ought to be another way.

Usually, people on a higher place on the income and lifestyle ladder don’t at first look at those who haven’t quite made it to the same place with any form of disgust on a person-to-person level. If they did, they would be fundamentally terrible people.

However, the lower place on the ladder is looked at with disgust in and of itself, and I mean that in a serious way. Whether that’s fueled more by a fear of losing status or lifestyle, a distaste for what another status would be like to experience, or insecurity driven by the idea that only people of lesser intelligence and worth would fall into a lower class, I do not know.

What I do know is that many in the upper classes who are there with the help of privilege have the attitude that if they did fall to a lower rung of the ladder, that would somehow mean they would match the description they have of a person that tends to be in that class — so they simply can’t be in a lower class because they wouldn’t fit that category. In other words, class movement is impossible, to a certain extent: Being lower class becomes as much about what kind of person you are as it is about how much you make.

From what I’ve seen (and perhaps at one time unconsciously been a part of myself) this manifests as, at best, a condescending pitying, or at worst, mockery, toward a person perceived to be in a “lower” place in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, I still feel a little upset and look back with an uncomfortable sadness about the many conversations and interactions I was privy to when I worked at the grocery store in my neighborhood when I was in high school. There were, essentially, two categories of employees and managers there: Those who lived in the area, usually teenagers, that didn’t “need” the job, but were there because their parents wanted them to get one, or they wanted some extra spending money, and on the other hand, people (who sometimes bused or drove in from different neighborhoods) who were actually making their careers at the grocery store.

If you laughed to yourself at that last part, this is part of the problem I’m talking about. What’s so fundamentally funny about a career at a grocery store if that’s what you have in the cards or what you choose to do?

I don’t think I’m reading too much into either the direct jokes and mockery or indirectly dismissive attitudes from the upper middle-class (and above) kids about the “lifers” at the grocery store. Even if they were our managers, they didn’t take these people seriously or respect them with the same dignity they afforded each other — even if they disliked someone else from their walk of life, there seemed to be a different, inherent understanding between them. The lifers and the grocery store, on the other hand, were superfluous window dressing in their lives. This is wholly separate from teenagers being their usual anti-authority and nonchalant characters (which is actually something that’s not celebrated enough, but I digress). What I’m highlighting here is a form of class attitude I’ve been outlining in this piece.

The perspective of that kid is that the job they’re in is, at the end of the day, a joke and beneath them1. Whether it’s for the extra spending money or just to get out of their parents’ hair while the high school years drift by, it is a detour and an unnecessary side activity. They will go off to college or university (which they will not pay for) in a few years anyway, and move on to bigger and better things — because they deserve to, of course, and nothing else would be expected.

By extension, the people who will continue to work that job are thrown under the bus with the condescension toward that job. By the time they’re done their degrees, or whatever other partially or fully subsidized adventures they’ll be on for a few years, the lifers they leave behind will still be at the grocery store because that’s supposedly the lot that belongs to those kinds of people.

I’m not trying to establish that everyone in the upper middle class or higher is exactly the same way I outline here. Obviously, this would be untrue. What I’m trying to do is outline some attitudes and sentiments that seem to consistently thread through the foundational outlook a lot of people from the upper classes seem to come to the table with — how this foundation is built upon and specifically manifests itself case-by-case, or is changed for the better, after that is left to the overwhelming complexities of life.

Still, I don’t think it’s unfair to point out commonalities and share my experiences. Some of the people I knew growing up were, in certain ways, genuinely very nice people. However, being a nice person doesn’t mean you won’t succumb to certain perceptions of “normal,” or internalize certain sentiments about social arrangements, the relative position others occupy within them, and attitudes about those people.

The attitudes I describe are often subtle, and in many (if not most) cases aren’t conscious, or at least don’t come with intentional malice. Think about how a position like waitressing or hotel staff are looked upon. I’m not trying to make the point that people in these job positions often take mistreatment from, well, everyone to some degree — I think everyone knows this. Someone who is working class can throw a tantrum at a hotel receptionist as much as an upper-middle class or very wealthy person can. In fact, upper middle class people tend to have a better-trained sense of how to treat folks in these positions in a way that purposely displays their decency, kindness, and politeness (an aspect of their own class consciousness).

The difference between the lower and upper middle class person is that the working class person would be less likely to turn to their travel companion at the hotel in reference to, say, a bellhop and mention something like “well, I would never want to do that job,” with the tinge of assumption and condescension that the person doing that job is there as a display of their potential or a summation of all their preferred choices. And, even if the lower middle class person did say that, the distinction here would be that the statement comes more from a perspective of genuine preference rather than one of certain tasks, and the people doing them, being beneath them in more than one way.

Again, I’m not implying there’s a class of snobs running around with outright rude attitudes toward lower classes, or even consciously negative ones. It’s not an upper class norm to go around displaying an active awareness or distaste of people with less money or of “the poor.” This isn’t a cartoon version of 18th– or 19th-century Britain.

In fact, it actually seems that signaling you care about people in the lower classes, or “the poor,” is a fashionable attitude for many in the upper classes now. One is expected to voice their sympathies for those that are less fortunate than them, especially if it’s a topic of conversation. However, reports of their concern are greatly exaggerated. Their revealed preferences are indication enough — you need only to observe what action, if any, they’re taking to help others, and contrast that with how often they encourage their kids not to give money, or pay attention to, a homeless person.

For those that do take some action to help those with less than them (volunteering, charitable donations, etc.), whether they’re doing that out of a genuine sense of concern and solidarity for their fellow human being or out of a sense of pity for what they view as “other” kinds of folk (a massive distinction not to be taken lightly) can only be judged on a case-by-case basis.

So, what am I trying to say here? Am I just complaining about something I can’t change? Splitting hairs? Does this kind of thing pale in comparison to our hockey-stick graphs of fast, upward moving economic well-being for everyone?

I don’t think so. Some people have figured out a way to simultaneously assert that lower classes are where they are because of their inherent properties (consciously or not), and that classes don’t exist in a serious way in our modern capitalist arrangement. But being conscious of class isn’t just a flight-of-fancy for weird left-wingers; it’s a useful tool of consideration and analysis that can help you understand the real world and make more sense of it. Like other tools, it should not be solely relied on as to create a narrow tunnel or dogma you see the world through, but good to have in the toolbox.

In my personal experience, these attitudes exist, are not restricted to a few exceptions, and the ones I’ve outlined are the milder of the bunch — I don’t even want to begin to get into how people with university degrees from this class feel as compared to those without formal education when it doesn’t occur to them they haven’t personally spent a nickel on their own post-secondary endeavors or the privileges they enjoy. Also, I’ve only really been writing mostly about white people in Canada and social status related to incomes — to say nothing of racial, or other, issues as they tie in with class, here or in other modern capitalist countries.

It’s great that the most honorable and virtuous classical liberals that I personally know truly don’t fit the description of anyone I have described in this piece. They have made conscious efforts to overcome underlying or unconscious attitudes and prejudices that may have established themselves due to their “normal.” Efforts are made to contextualize their lives in the world they live in, recognize their own privilege, and view their fellow humans as equals — truly as individuals with their own merits, vices, privileges, and obstacles to be considered before passing judgement.

It’s not merely nice or sentimental that they’ve done this. It has practical implications for their ability to understand the world and advocate for a better one in a truly educated way. That certainly doesn’t mean that everyone else has done this, has come close to it, or even desires it.

All of this presents just one small element of a discussion on class and class attitudes, and that is an even smaller portion of a larger discussion on social issues and the realities that others face that the liberal-minded person should always be willing to understand and participate in.

This line of thinking and style of discussion is often dismissed as overexaggerated, lower-priority, or just weirdly Marxist in tone. Classical liberals spend a lot of time defending relatively free markets and liberal values, especially individualism, and calling out the state — properly so. However, they often aren’t as interested to get into the dirty business of a class discussion — whether it involves the interest and attitudes of certain business groups, income groups, or otherwise.

This is more than a little understandable. Those who are known to have put class discussion to work the most effectively (politically speaking) in the recent past haven’t been classical liberals, and they tend to use it as some sort of cartoonish rallying cry to “overthrow the rich,” “seize the means of production,” and whatever other slogan seems to anger people.

However, just because some leverage concepts in less-than-helpful ways doesn’t mean the liberal-minded person shouldn’t keep these kinds of observations, understandings, and methods in their toolbox so they can add them to their frame of reference, and honestly reconcile them with their own personal worldviews and any larger discussions on social attitudes and arrangements. Just because people occasionally throw bricks through windows doesn’t mean you can’t build houses with them.

Yes, it is paramount that we recognize communities and societies as large groupings are ultimately composed of smaller units — individuals — that have rights and should be recognized and respected as autonomous. And, of course, viewing the world as one made of individuals pursuing their own interests that ought to have a framework conducive to doing so is completely justifiable. However, ignoring the idea that behavior and mindset of individuals can be influenced by, and judged in, the context of larger groups is a mistake. A forest is an emergent property of trees’ individual properties, but you will see behavior and activity in forests that can’t occur around lone trees.

Continually hammering on individualism to people who do not accept or recognize its importance (e.g., state-socialists) can bring those cherished points of principle to a numb level of repetition that creates mistakes in mindsets and blurs and diminishes the effects of other important truths: Other people do often view the world and others in it with shortcuts fueled by the convenience provided by sorting people into simple-to-understand groups that possess certain perceived traits, mannerisms, qualities, etc., and this is all enforced (consciously or subconsciously) by the “normal” they have been exposed to. Individuals who share and experience (not the exact same, but relatively similar) norms tend to also share certain attitudes or points of view. Or in other words, when scaled up from the individual, we can make use of adding the matrix of class to our analysis and see that a certain class can possess certain attitudes, and even interests, as a whole.

When it comes to public policy, politics, social arrangements, and the other realities the liberal is faced with every day, being able to recognize class attitudes or interest should not be a foreign concept that only silly Marxists play around with. Individuals and businesses do make decisions that aim to maximize their own benefits, but when we zoom out we can navigate and understand the world around us a lot better if we also recognize things like the vested interests of “the business community” at large, the attitudes found in people with high incomes from a suburb, the sentiments that a largely homogenous city or people harbor towards outsiders, and so on.

We can’t ever be on the way to an ideal world that provides a rich framework for the individual to flourish or fail strictly due to their own volition if we don’t first deal with the real one the way it is. Classical liberals have to be careful not to project their genuine individualist attitude onto others by assuming they think the same way. That means dealing with the reality that people don’t leave their house trying to maximize value for themselves and their family completely unaffected by their normal. They tend to have an idea where they exist in the grand scheme of things and where others do, carry around all the conscious or unconscious prejudices and notions that come with that, and don’t even stop to think how that can affect their perceptions, attitudes, and decisions.

1It should be noted here that a sense of disgust, or the feeling that a certain circumstance driven by class or status is “beneath” someone, can be felt by someone currently in that very class or status, but that’s probably driven by a different incentive, sets of thought processes, and motivations – one of wanting to escape and move out of lower income scenarios or poverty. An important distinction and subject to explore, but not the subject of this piece.

Image from The Independent

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Alex Aragona

About the Author: Alex Aragona

Alex is a business and marketing professional residing in Canada. He also hosts The Curious Task podcast. He is the founder of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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