What is there in me that makes me that?
“If you went to a private school, you forfeit the right to speak about working class. Get out of the way. It’s you, YES YOU that is the problem.”
This recent twitter post, despite probably being at the extreme end of a spectrum, both frustrated and intrigued me. Rather than limit my discussion of this to the paltry maximum of 140 characters, I felt that it needed a bit more in the way of a response — hence this short post.
I was sent to a fee-paying school for 5 years from the ages of 11 to 16. Though I don’t want to labour what is probably an obvious point: at that age, I did not have a choice in the matter. My brother had been educated there and so my parents considered it only ‘fair’ that I was afforded the same opportunity. My mother worked with the sole purpose of paying for our school fees while my father (a chemical engineer who worked his way up a career ladder when class mobility in the north-east was still a realistic proposition) kept the family afloat.
I do not come from wealth and remember the conceited views of some of those that did grating on me intensely in my early teenage years. I chose to spend time with friends in my home town of South Shields, almost all of who were from working-class backgrounds. They accepted the fact that I went to a private school and except for the odd wind up about having a silver spoon up my backside, they respected me as much as I respected them. As soon as I had a choice and a juncture at which to make it, I opted out of the stuffy claustrophobia of private education and went to college.
Fast-forward to today and a primary reflection since starting my PhD is that it often seems as if it is best to keep all of this a bit quiet in an academic environment where as a post-graduate student or academic, we seem to be largely restricted to a binary of either the middle-class liberal who has been handed progress on a plate or you are working- class and proud of a hard-fought battle to get here.
Why am I telling you all of this? Does it matter? Well, maybe. Blanket judgements based on a kind of militant working-class posturing as that detailed in the tweet above are no more productive than the blanket judgements from right-wing libertarian conservatism about the ‘undeserving poor’. Isn’t it counter-productive to exclude someone and the sum total of their knowledge, intuition, and experience purely on class and/or educational grounds? You cannot have empathy, you cannot have an understanding of the working-class position and so on. On a personal level, an alternative would at least be to listen to my thoughts rather than giving symbolic priority to any supposed middle-class regalia conferred onto me while attending my ‘posh’ school.
As Žižek puts it, we are in a very peculiar position in that we have a symbolic order where ‘the social mask matters more than the direct reality of the individual who wears it’ (Žižek, 2006: 33). My point is that if we wear a social mask then we also carry a dog-tag of class identity and are treated accordingly; colouring and veiling the deeper truth of our subjective self. Surely this works both ways — you can be a child molester but as a priest, your cassock and biblical preaching bestow a symbolic ecclesial authority driving your congregation towards a greater moral horizon. Conversely, you can care deeply about inequality, about the myriad ways in which working-class communities have been abandoned, vilified, and exploited by a vicious media, a disinterested political mainstream and a liberal-left distracted with the slicing of ever finer identities like a child with their first microscope. But because you were privately educated and wear this symbolic status, your emotional investment and thoughtful opinion does not carry the same exchange value as working-class currency.
‘Hysteria emerges when a subject starts to question or feel discomfort in his or her symbolic identity’ (Žižek, 2006: 35). Well perhaps I am becoming hysterical but all that I ask is that we seek to peel back this social mask. We need to discover more about each other’s individual journeys to the present together with the experiential treasure we have all picked up along the way, instead of blindly relying on perceived class status as a catch-all indicator of what it is to be who we are.
Žižek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta
Title taken from Richard II by William Shakespeare.