The inability of the political and professional classes to comprehend or respect the political opinions of those from other backgrounds is nearly as grave a threat to our social cohesion as unchecked multiculturalism
There is a whole bucketload of truth in this piece by Michael Merrick, which should make uncomfortable reading not only for metro-leftist, pro-EU types, but even those of us in the so-called professional classes who do not subscribe to majority opinion.
Merrick discusses the differing prevailing cultural and political norms which exist among working class people (generally more conservative) and those in the urban professional classes (much more progressive), and the difficulty of bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the two. This is particularly relevant when it is almost exclusively the professional classes who are charged with setting public policy, despite often having no real empathy with those whom they seek to reform or re-educate.
It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.
Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.
But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige – in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.
This truth tends to sail over the heads of people who currently exist and always remained largely in the same social class and culture in which they were raised – how would they know any different? But Merrick, who gained access to the professional classes after being the first in his family to get a degree, is better placed to notice the gulf of incomprehension and unwillingness to empathise with the other side, having occupied both sides of the divide at various times.
And this can have a real impact in terms of public policy, as Merrick notes:
In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, Pioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.
But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.
“Anywheres seeking to educate a generation of somewheres” – that phrase resonates, particularly as the self-described Citizens of the World tend to assume that the only thing preventing others from embracing their worldview is their lower level of education.
I actually see a lot of myself in what Merrick writes. I wouldn’t know whether to describe my upbringing as working class or middle class. Income-wise, being in a single parent family on benefits, living in Harlow, we were very much working class. But thanks to other branches of the family that worked in professional or academic circles, I wouldn’t say that my social upbringing was that of the typical working class. I should also note that my accent was never the standard estuary accent typical to Essex, but rather that of my wider family – and in Britain, accent does so much to demarcate one’s class status.
I certainly remember being both aware and very ashamed of being poor when I was young, and keenly noticed the difference in lifestyle between many of my schoolfriends who came from working families – their Sky television versus our black and white television set, for example. To be clear, I wanted for nothing when I was a child and had a great upbringing rich in love and family and culture. But a child notices these things, and it is silly to deny that they influence one’s development.
And so, when I was accepted into Cambridge University I was probably overly keen to embrace the distinctly more upper middle-class lifestyle and tastes enjoyed by my peers – not that I ever fell properly into the working class mould because of our extended family, but because I was keen to explore new horizons which had previously been somewhat limited. I enjoyed being on the Entertainments Committee of the Cambridge Union Society and wearing black tie to the weekly debates featuring famous names from British political and cultural life. I admit that I enjoyed having transcended the town, the culture and many of the people with whom I had grown up.
This continued into my professional life. Living with other young professionals starting their careers in London, I was happy to make jokes about chavs, or otherwise look down on those from less educated and less wealthy circumstances. I would sometimes crack jokes about Harlow and the people there (despite the fact that I had, and continue to have, friends living in Harlow to this day). I remember attending one fancy dress party in a chav costume, which I thought to be terribly clever at the time.
In fact, it has probably only been in the past five years, since I started blogging (and consequently reading and thinking a lot more about various issues) that I realise the deliberate nature of what I was doing as an adolescent and a young graduate – and how insufferable I must have been to so many people from my earlier life during that time. And it is only now, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the enormous establishment hissy fit which continues to this day in response to the outcome, that I fully understand what Michael Merrick is saying and identify very much with his experience.
I have always felt that the best people to analyse or give commentary on a situation are those who have held both sides of an argument at one time or another, or been on different sides of an important wedge issue. Why listen to somebody like Owen Jones analyse politics, when he was raised to hate the Tories and simply continued on the same uninterrupted intellectual trajectory his whole life, the only difference being that he can now use longer words and quote academic sources sympathetic to his position? There is no personal growth there, nor any real empathy for the other side (the possession of which is the only real acid test of one’s own political philosophy) and consequently no real attempt to engage with ideological opponents. That’s not being an intellectual, it’s being a partisan shill.
Similarly on Brexit, why listen to some millennial writer who has only grown up knowing life inside the EU and accepting its unquestioned brilliance all the days of her life? What can such a person really add to the national conversation besides a whole heap of confirmation bias and sanctimony?
Now, I would never claim to be better than Owen Jones or Generic Millennial Remainiac Writer. But I can at least plausibly claim to have had my feet on both sides of the political and cultural divide at various times, having grown up holding the typical youthful left-wing opinions and then made a gradual move toward the libertarian or conservatarian Right. And even more so having been a staunch euro-federalist in my university days, to the extent that I hung an EU flag on my dorm room wall and sometimes insufferably wore an EU flag lapel pin, to rediscovering the vital importance of the nation state and becoming an avowed Brexiteer over the past five years.
Generally I find that the most productive exchanges take place with people who have not simply percolated in likeminded groupthink for their entire careers, but who have either personal experience of occupying the other side of the argument or at least made a sincere effort to reach out in good faith to those who disagree.
I was a socialist in my youth, and know many of the old arguments inside and out – but crucially, I also know through personal experience that many of those who still hold socialist views are good and decent people. I was a pro-European in my youth and know the entire case for European political integration backwards and forwards, yet despite having reversed my position 180 degrees I know that many of those who still hold these views are intelligent and honourable people. I hope that this knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and acknowledgement of the decency of those with whom I disagree adds a bit of depth to my better pieces of writing.
Unfortunately, this attempt to bridge the chasm of cultural and political difference is almost nonexistent among the political class – on both sides. Rising star Labour MP Jess Phillips openly admits to being “raised in no uncertain terms to hate Tories“, a fact which shines through in many of her speeches and television appearances. And the inability of many of those in the Conservative Party and the centrist, machine politics wing of the Labour Party to empathise with working class people is self-evident – a particularly shameful indictment of the Labour centrists, who now openly scorn a large swathe of their political base.
And this failure to empathise with different people has real world effects, like when David Cameron went marching off to Brussels to conduct his faux renegotiation with the EU despite never really having stopped to ask what the British people wanted out of it, and today’s Conservative government pursuing an idiotic and damaging approach to Brexit on the assumption that immigration is the overriding factor for most people when post-referendum polls (and a few conversations with actual Brexiteers) reveal concerns about sovereignty and democracy to have been the primary driver of Brexit.
We currently have a political class who at best arrogantly think they can channel working class opinion without ever really stopping to consult the people they think they are ventriloquising, and at worst simply don’t care at all about what a whole swathe of the population thinks and believes.
More worryingly, it takes an immense effort to overcome this gulf of misunderstanding – in my case it took over five years, and that’s despite having occupied both sides of the debate at different times, such is the zealotry of a convert to professional class norms – and the political class generally show zero aptitude for that kind of introspection.
Michael Merrick has done a great job of diagnosing the problem, but right now I fail to see a ready solution. The gulf of incomprehension is likely to get wider before it narrows.
Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:
Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.