Classism is social activists’ forgotten prejudice
A couple of weeks ago, a video interview with a couple of supposed Trump voters did the rounds on Twitter. “Donald Trump is a genius,” says one. “That’s what the J stands for.” The video went viral. “Trump supporters are like fans of Brexit. Illiterate, unhinged, ill-informed and bonkers!” one Twitter user said of the US president’s supporters.
It turned out the video wasn’t real. Yet even after the comedian responsible for it made this clear, the video continued to be shared. It seemed to me odd that people hadn’t realised it was satire. It almost felt like they wanted it to be real; they wanted to see Trump voters as “that dumb”.
At times of heightened anxiety, it can be comforting to delegitimise the “other”. And while all sorts of bigotry are shunned — racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism — ridiculing someone for their lack of education, or for their social class, often appears to remain acceptable.
Despite an increasing prioritisation of emotional safety — it has been dubbed “safetyism” — mocking someone’s accent or inability to spell is still fair game. “I really would prefer it if we had a home secretary who could pronounce the G at the end of a word,” Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell said recently in reference to Priti Patel.
Studies show white working-class males are among the most underprivileged socio-economic groups by some measures. Official UK data shows white men from low-income families are the least likely to go to university; Princeton University research has also found middle-aged white working-class males’ “deaths of despair” have driven a decline in US life expectancy.
Yet there is a fundamental tension between being able to recognise this, and a worldview that sees whiteness, cisgenderness and maleness as the ultimate privileges. The threatened “cancellation” of anyone who deviates from this perspective means that emphasising class issues — where race, gender or sexuality become secondary — has become complicated.
It’s not that social justice activists don’t consider class important. They do: “intersectionality” is a central concept. But they only seem to tolerate those from other socio-economic classes who mirror their values. One problem is that experiences of those from different groups is often at odds with the activists’ own.
“If you are a white working class non-graduate . . . you are aware that the last 30 years have not been good for you,” says Rob Ford, a politics professor at Manchester university. “Some of the arguments that are made around gender and race inequality being the source of all evil don't really seem to ring true to you in your homogeneously white place that has basically been dumped upon for a generation.”
Marcus Roberts, director of international projects at YouGov and a former Labour party strategist, says the “solutions” many higher-income, higher-education voters suggest for dealing with the “problematic” views of less wealthy fellow citizens is more education. “It’s as if they can be ‘taught out’ of holding the values that they hold. That, in and of itself, represents a form of classism.”
It seems to me that while the overt classism of a decade or two ago in Little Britain television skits has faded, class remains a huge issue and an important determinant of success.
We need to address this. But how? In France, where the prime minister’s regional accent was recently described by Paris Match as “gravelly post-match rugby”, the answer appears to be legislation, and a new word: glottophobie. Along with racism and sexism, this newly recognised transgression — snobbery against regional accents — is now a criminal offence, carrying a proposed maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a €45,000 fine.
That’s not the solution, as far as I’m concerned. We can’t legislate away the problem any more than we can educate people into holding views that liberal-minded university graduates have decided are the correct ones. We don’t just need to learn to tolerate different accents; we need to learn to speak different cultural languages. Because until we actually want to understand what the other person is really saying, we can’t expect any kind of meaningful discussion.