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Class Mindsets

I've never really felt I was working class. I grew up in Birmingham, my Mom was an Irish-immigrant shop-girl, and my Dad was a policeman, then a factory worker at Leyland cars. When the car factory went the way of the Dodo, we became market-traders on Birmingham market, selling books and wool. I loved the markets: it's the only time I felt I was part of something, part of a larger community with a distinct identity and culture. Like all communities it was not without conflict and divisions, but in the end most people would tend to pull together, sometimes surprising you when they'd put down their enmities to help each other, and then pick those enmities straight back up again afterwards, as though they were just masks or costumes they were wearing. We had our haters, including at least one virulent racist that couldn't stand, but they were the exception rather than the rule. By and large people got on, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule that we should all pull together.

But I never really felt I was working class. After all, I wasn't working down a mine, and we were selling books, and when I wasn't selling them I was reading them voraciously. I was different. Early on in my life I'd been a shut-in child, kept in doors because of the fear of reprisals against Catholics after the Birmingham Pub Bombings. This kept me apart from my peers, and imbued me with a love of books, and science, and in-door things that stays with me to this day. Who knows, without the intervention of the IRA, I might have been jock, rather than a geek. Small things happening early on, even if they're only in effect briefly, profoundly influence one's development. How much more profound then, must be the influence of the culture that one grows up in?

When we speak of 'culture' we tend to mean national cultures, and we tend to think that all people from the same national background will largely have the same culture. But I've always been aware, myself, that every family is its own unique culture, full of in-jokes that only the family members will understand. Culture is a many-layered thing, and as with genetics, some layers get suppressed by others, or by the environment, and never find expression. Class is one such layer, and personally I thought it was one that didn't find expression in me. In my long-ago youth, I probably thought class was something that was going away, that we were all converging onto an equal plane and a shared identity.

And, at University, that's the way it seemed to be. I didn't feel there was any gulf or distance between me and the people who's parents had been doctors or lawyers or university professors, and there were people from much worse off backgrounds than me. But, thinking back, I'm not sure I ever saw signs of the "let's all pull together" attitude, university just didn't throw up those kinds of situations. Or when it did, they'd be extreme, like if someone's having a fit, then everyone pulls together.

Still, now I wonder. My experiences in the science-fiction community have left me wondering what went so wrong, and time and again class surfaces for me as an explanation. I've felt much more of a gulf between myself and much of the SF crowd in terms of their educational backgrounds and opportunities in life. Also, I realize that in many ways I made myself vulnerable to attack by being too trusting, and where did this overabundance of trust come from? And one thing that people constantly told me was that requires_hate, a vicious troll who was attacking writers via leftist social theory, was probably a writer seeking to do down their peers and advance themselves. I just wouldn't believe it. Why they thought it, and I wouldn't even countenance it, is an interesting question. In the end it turned out to be true, and I wonder if much of the sturm-und-drang that goes on in science-fiction can be explained in terms of writerly fratricide, in terms of people doing each other down in order to raise their own profiles. If the evidence is to be believed, then requires_hate was actually buddying up to people under one persona, and using the information she got via that, to attack them under another persona. Certainly, if true, this is sociopathic behavior, but there's a lot of this about in SF, it seems to me.

Likely my surfeit of trust was the product of being a shut-in child, likely requires_hate is just suffering from sociopathy, and likely her many followers and supporters were just stupid and easily led. But I can't quite dismiss another explanation, that class cultures, or class mindsets, are part of the explanation.

Now, inevitably, there's some danger in me lionizing the working class. There's plenty of ugliness I've seen from working-class people which, although there are plenty of people who don't demonstrate the traits, could still be said to be part of a working-class mindset. I've seen much more open xenophobia among the working class. Equally I did receive help and kindness from people in the science-fiction community, and from people who I think would be hard-pressed not to admit they were middle-class. However, I've come to suspect that this "We're all in this together, we must all pull together" attitude that I've seen, is part of the working-class mindset, and a middle-class mindset is a little more, "I'm alright, Jack".

Consider the occupations that define the two groups. If you're working class, then you work in teams, often large teams, and there's little hope of advancement or promotion. If you work down a mine, you'll be working down the mine for all your working life, and there's not much of a career ladder for you to ascend. You'll also likely be stuck with the people around you pretty much for ever, so you better learn to get along. The work is often dangerous too, so you need friends who'll watch out for you. In such an environment the mindset is "we're all in this together" and "I'll watch out for your safety if you watch out for mine". People develop a shared identity and some level of trust and regard, and likely this attitude seeps over into other aspects of life, and the culture will stick around for a while even when the work changes, and is passed onto children through cultural osmosis.

But middle-class occupations are much more individualistic. There's a clearly defined hierarchy that one can hope to climb up. If you start at ground zero in a middle-class occupation, it's still very unlikely that you'll ever be sitting on the board, but it's not impossible. You can certainly move some way up the power structure. The people around will change, in many professions you might switch location many times, and completely lose touch with people you once knew Thus the attitude is not "we are all in this together" the attitude is "we are all in competition." Whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, that idea's got to be floating around in people's minds every time a chance for promotion comes up.

Well, who knows? Likely it's all my imagination, but I can't shake the idea that one reason I had a bad time among the science-fiction crowd, was culture-clash. I was a guy from a "let's all pull together" background who found himself amongst people for whom, or for some of whom, backstabbing is just the way you get on. There's a lot of vicious critique and accusation and counter-accusation in the science-fiction scene, much more than I've seen anywhere else, and at the same time one cannot deny it's a very white, middle-class, scene. Now, I'm not blaming anyone for the culture they grew up in, and the comment about it being a very 'white' middle-class scene isn't a hint a some latent belief in genetic determinism, but I do think that different groups of people have different outlooks, even if they don't realize it themselves. It's an interesting theory and it would explain a lot, wouldn't it?