Saturday, June 09, 2007

Default Culture and Class Warfare

Scene Setter: Will Herberg wrote the fascinating Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955, a clear and elegant summary of religion in American life. Herberg was struck by the melting-pot nature of our civic and religious values, the developing similarities in worship and practice. He noted, for example, that synagogue worship in America resembled that of American churches more than European synagogues; moreover, the social views of American Jews mirrored this. The underlying religious doctrinal differences might be profound, but if you turned the sound off they seemed much the same.

Films or stories often start with the typical in order to contrast it with later events. Just a typical American family…the generic American town…a school just like yours. The creator might go to some lengths to show just how typical the person or office is. The artist wants to capture the essentials, so that the audience just thinks “generic Protestant wedding,” or “generic State U.” These images are self-reinforcing. We grow up with an impression of what is typical based on what others tell us is typical, and pass that expectation on to others in a thousand subtle ways.

This impression changes over time, but not in the same way for all of us. There is a good deal of wishful thinking on all fronts. If everyone in your circle makes certain assumptions, you will see them as more typical. Cultures argue within themselves about whose picture of typicality is the more accurate. National elections may be about this more than anything else: who are we right now, this minute?

This accounts for the fondness that folks have for quoting poll statistics as if they were proofs of something rather than illustrations. 67% of Americans believe…more people agree with A than not-A 42%-39%. By taking these oversimplifications and spinning them in certain ways, we attempt to create social pressure that others should adopt our ideas, or at least go along with them. This is not just a PR campaign for most of us – it is usually a sincerely held belief that our culture is “normative” and the other guy’s is out-of-step in some way.

We usually notice this most jarringly when we encounter someone who is not only different, but has a different idea of what is typical. People who know they are eccentric, or from another culture, do not challenge our assumptions so much, as we can write them off.

Because we are social creatures, we tend slightly to regard what we think is typical as right. While we all have numerous exceptions to this – areas where we think the great mass of humanity is just wrong about something – there is a slight favoring of the common as the correct. This isn’t a bad thing in itself; we all have to live together and this mutual influence is probably adaptive. Yet it is easy to see how this can be pretty dangerous, if everyone starts heading off in the same idiotic direction while patting each other on the back and reassuring the children that all is well. To be overly influenced by what everyone else thinks might be good for you socially, but too much of it is eventually bad for the group. Even more, it’s bad for all the other groups you come in contact with.

Television shows came under fire in the 70’s and 80’s for portraying a pretty high standard of living as typical. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I’m going to bet that unless the specific point of the show is to portray a poorer family, what is put forth as typical is actually well above typical in income, education, beauty, and a dozen other things. Upside: we like to think we are better than we are, so identifying with people who have more advantages makes us feel like our group must be pretty good. Highschool students are usually played by kids that are college age; 40-something single mothers are usually played by pretty glamorous 30-somethings, carefully made up to look as if they aren’t wearing makeup. Downside: a lot of people know that they don’t measure up to this standard, and if they accept the artist’s view of typicality, will feel they have been cheated in some way. If you are middle class it is merely irritating that an upper-middle-class lifestyle is what you “should” be experiencing. It might even be challenging and inspiring. But if you are poor, you are going to have the sense that you have been robbed. You could only get to that level of wealth with a lot of effort or an unfair advantage. Those people on the TV don’t seem to be putting in a lot of effort, so they must have some unfair advantage. At this point your own perceptions and prejudices of race, religion, personality, or occupation will come into play.

You will likely transfer that TV prejudice to the actual people in your society. You will perceive others as unfairly richer than you and resent them. Those people will have done nothing against you, but you will resent them. This is not healthy for the society as a whole. If you stretch out the possible futures for this in your imagination, you can see where it could lead to great instability.

It is for this reason that I resent the class-warfare rhetoric of political figures. Politicians who say they will fight for you, rather than work for you, are dangerous.

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