Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snippets from an Aries Moon

I’ve noticed that often when people talk, others don’t listen. I’ve also noticed that often when people write messages, others don’t read them. This should not be an epiphany.

I go to Yahoo to open my e-mail, and see a featured article on “How not to feel humiliated when dining alone.” Whoever wrote the article should be humiliated. “Tip #2—Try the bar.” Sitting at the bar sends a message, namely, “I’m looking to hook up with somebody here.” And tip #1, “Be bookish (i.e., bring a book)” doesn’t stop anyone from talking to you at the bar. And you don’t “people watch” at a restaurant the way you might sitting on a park bench—that’s just creepy. The whole article is patronizing. It says in a pitying way, “you like to be alone, and that’s different, but being different is OK!” in that cheery fake tone that makes you want to strangle the person speaking. If you’re so insecure about going out without having a babysitter everywhere you go, that’s your problem.

I recall a 4-hour conversation with a friend on Monday. One of the things we talked about was class distinction in the UK. As an American, I’ve never “gotten” the idea that how much money you make or what kind of job your parents held should have something to do with your worth in society. It shouldn’t matter if someone is the Queen or if they’re waiting tables somewhere, they’re still people and worthy of respect. Apparently, though, class distinction still holds weight in British consciousness. I mentioned this to my hairdresser the other day, and he probably said it best: “Some people buy a thousand dollar pair of shoes like some of us buy a pack of gum. And they hang out with other people who do the same, because that’s normal for them. I get that. I what I don’t get is how having that much money gives you the right to disrespect anyone else.”

There are days when I can ignore patronizing behavior successfully, even though talking to a patronizing person makes me feel like I’ve just taken a bath in the sewer. I’m thinking today is not one of those days. In general, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I’m in the face of that kind of fake nice behavior. I must have been an archer in a previous life, because when I see the target set up, my reaction is to shoot at it.

“Supposed to” is one of the most despicable phrases in the English language. There is respectful social behavior, and then there’s just ridiculously stupid convention that betrays anything resembling honesty and integrity. Carl Jung talks about the Shadow archetype. One explanation of the Shadow is that it is all of our repressed thoughts and feelings. Typically, whatever one “thinks” they are, they are also the opposite, and that can make one deeply ashamed. I’ve often thought about my Shadow. I flip flop back and forth between thoughts, feelings and self-concepts so many times, sometimes in a single day, that I start to think I’m a hypocrite. But then I remember that everyone, by virtue of being human, feels both ways about everything. I like to think I’m more honest about it. Still, I’m sure my Shadow will trip me up one of these days. Or my cat, who thinks he’s my shadow.


Gem said...

I don't think I can put it better than your hairdresser did (and I wish I could get that kind of conversation out of mine, who spends most of her time criticising her assistants...)

The situation here is possibly even worse than I made out in our conversation the other day, to be honest. Cash is actually not the main factor in British culture; a working-class person who wins the Lottery will still be judged negatively by many, while an aristocrat who loses everything will still retain a fair bit of social cachet. Property and 'breeding' have always been paramount in our society. Who would have thought that relics of the feudal system could persist into a new millennium?

Still, on some level, I think we want them to. God knows why, but you have to assume that, if class bothered us that much as a culture, we'd do something about it once and for all. It's interesting that many commentators still speak of democracy as a concept that is fundamentally unsuited to certain societies, by which they mean Middle Eastern or African. I suspect that the existence of class distinctions in ours is a symbol of the failure of democracy to completely take root in what began as a deeply hierarchical and tribal Germanic culture. Maybe Europeans aren't quite as evolved as we like to think...

Gem said...

By 'evolved', I was passing sarcastic comment on European/Western perceptions of our own culture rather than knocking others. Never bought into the arguments about 'supremacy' of European cultural achievements; when you've studied the medieval West for any length of time, it's really difficult to view us as anything other than barbarians in suits.

By some 'happy' chance, the same old class argument is being trotted out again here:

It's about private schools in the UK, but any such discussion inevitably morphs into a class system debate at some point down the line. The comments pretty much sum up the variety of British views on the subject. Thought it might be of interest. :)

Brigid N. Burke said...

Thanks for the article link, Gem—I found the comments fascinating. In many ways, it’s not different from private and public schools here in the States. But what’s interesting in the U.S. is that the perception often doesn’t match the reality. One assumes that students in posh private school are better educated and do well compared to their public school counterparts. From what I’ve seen over the years, the opposite is true. Many private schools are run by some kind of religious organization, and these days they have less money to play with than the publics, which are still tax-supported, and have the funds for better resources, bigger buildings, smaller class sizes. Also—there was a lot of talk about students with “behavioral” problems. In the States, all of those students end up in the private religious schools, because there is a perception that the staff there will enforce discipline in the way the publics supposedly don’t. Having gone to a private secondary school, I can tell you that this is bullsh*t.

I think in the end, it comes down to who you know, not how you’re educated. Parents with more money and more connections, that send their kids to schools with the right names—those kids are able to network with people who can get them the big-paying jobs and to-die-for internships—especially if they’re going after positions of power. But that does require money, and not everyone has that. In recent years, it’s also true that if you’re a Harvard or Princeton graduate, that’s not necessarily going to help you. Everyone is pretty much screwed on the job market these days, and having such a degree may make you overqualified for many things. More prestige makes people feel they have to pay you more money, and they don’t want to do that.

Your point is about the class system in the UK (with educational privilege being a part of that), and I think your comment on the idea of it as a cultural phenomenon is interesting, and right on the mark. Though I will say this—such collective myths/ideas like class distinction die hard, because they are so embedded in the fabric of the culture. Those who benefit from it obviously want it to remain. Those who don’t probably want to get rid of it. And—certainly in the U.S.—the British upper class tends to be highly romanticized. All of the history, architecture, clothing, pomp, circumstance associated with the very wealthy is an industry in and of itself for tourists. But I don’t think it dawns on most people that there are still very real inequalities based on class.