Superiority Mirage

A few months ago, I watched a documentary called The Philosopher Kings: Wisdom from the Custodial Staff at Prestigious Universities. The movie outlined the lives of janitors from various colleges. It explored what conjuncture of circumstances led them to join the universities’ custodial staff, and it gave the janitors the opportunity to reflect directly on what their jobs and lives had taught them about work, education, and what’s truly important.

The documentary came as a revelation, a provocation to examine my inner elitism. The janitors’ eloquence and thoughtfulness—as well as the fact that some of them had actively chosen their jobs, responding to a vocation for custodianship rather than the desire to escape the pressure of economic exigency—took me by surprise. That one of the janitors, a young man in his thirties, was an artist in his spare time, with aspirations to convert his artistry from a hobby into something serious, also struck me. If my reactions had been consistent with my intellectual positions, I shouldn’t have felt startled in the slightest: I don’t believe that a person’s job has any necessary connection to her intelligence, dignity, or capacity to create beauty or respond thoughtfully to the world around us. And although I have certain reservations about the importance of “hard work”—we should try to automate unpleasant labor—I do believe that all labor that is performed with a prosocial purpose has value. My reaction betrayed the previously hidden existence of unexamined preconceptions, clogging my mind and belying my political commitment to treating people equally.

We commonly cling to philosophical principles and political beliefs when they’re safely abstract, removed from situations which would force us to act, to take a risk or incur a cost for what we believe in. All too often, we fail to scrutinize whether our daily practices agree with the opinions which we profess to uphold. Paying lip service to equality is easy. Putting that commitment into practice is more difficult, especially when one’s failures to respect people manifest subtly and semiconsciously, or only in one’s own mind, where it’s easy to turn a blind eye.

But where exactly do these preconceptions come from? My parents never taught me to judge others by their socioeconomic status, nor did my teachers or textbooks. But my surroundings did. Mainstream culture and news media lack representation of working-class people. And given that my hometown was an affluent suburb whose denizens were largely doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals and their children, media would have been the main way I could have become more familiar with working-class people. A lack of familiarity liberates our shortcut-seeking instinct to reduce people to cardboard stereotypes. Not having real-world interactions with the group you’re considering renders them less vivid, easier to caricature without feeling pangs of regret. One sees this in abundance reading anything written by an aristocrat in the 1500s or 1600s about the “lower orders,” or reading anything penned by a European colonialist about non-Western subject peoples.

One needn’t venture so far afield to encounter such crude stereotypes, though: all you need do is open the New York Times or Washington Post to read absurdly overconfident opinion columnists’ ill-informed attempts to psychoanalyze the working class or people half a world away based on preconception and personal prejudice. I admittedly haven’t interacted socially with many members of the working class—and of course, the problem is larger than me. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries where class hierarchy reigns paramount, people (often subconsciously) segregate themselves by socioeconomic status and race.

This sorting process begins with parents’ choice of neighborhood, quietly encouraged by banks and mortgage companies. It ramifies, affecting children’s experiences of the public education system (if parents don’t opt out altogether by sending their progeny to private school), where students are often sorted by educational aptitude, a quality which is highly class-inflected; and children’s subsequent collegiate and career paths, both of which are profoundly shaped by class, and even their choice of who to date and marry.

People are often discomfited by the unfamiliar. Since inter-class interaction is rare, it can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, as can the sensation of not having common educational or cultural references, and the effort that comes with self-monitoring to avoid behavior that might be perceived as hoity-toity or condescending. This feeling of unease makes it less likely that people will assume the risk of embarrassment, discomfort, or misunderstanding that attaches to the pursuit of friendships and romantic relationships with people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. This tendency renders this system of social selection self-reinforcing.

The upshot of all this social sorting is that members of the professional, upper middle class that often makes political decisions are insulated from the lives of the people whose quality of life depends most on good public policy. This hasn’t been constant throughout modern history: when the labor movement was strong, the working class enjoyed more political, economic, and cultural representation, and different economic classes mixed more readily. But it has always been true to at least some extent.

Successful people are invested in the concept of meritocracy for obvious reasons. It allows them to plume themselves on their success without suffering the pangs of unease which come with contemplating the possibility that the system which gave them their success is unjust and that their success is therefore, to a certain extent, fraudulent. To confront the truth—that success and failure are societally produced—threatens the basis upon which many people build their lives. The “just world” hypothesis, the tendency to assume that people receive their just deserts, is a powerful and comforting illusion. If someone is treated poorly, there’s always the temptation to assume that they have done something to merit their mistreatment. This tendency has deep roots: even victims often blame themselves for their victimhood. The seduction of self-flagellation keeps the system in place: oppressed groups misidentify the sources of their oppression, locating inadequacies within, and this encourages their quiescence and acquiescence to the injustice of their lot.

I’m not denying the importance of hard work. But many people who are poor or “unsuccessful” according to socially dominant values work just as hard, if not harder, than people with prestigious careers. We’re all creatures of chance and circumstance. We are malleable: people’s perceptions help determine reality. Consider the notions of “stereotype threat” and the “bloomer effect.” Reminders of one’s membership in a disadvantaged group cause students’ test performance to plummet. The way that teachers treat students who they expect to bloom academically—the extra attention and positive reinforcement they offer—encourages that process of blossoming. It requires a great deal of fortitude to withstand the pressure of society’s expectations. The path of least resistance is usually to conform. If you’re working at a job where the boss doesn’t expect much of you and treats you as if you’re incompetent, you won’t be motivated to do a good job (unless you believe deeply in the value of the work). You certainly won’t go above and beyond the call of duty.

This plasticity of behavior is why the Left fights for freedom from undignified working conditions and the terror of scarcity. The failures of our educational system and the long-term effects of alienation and deprivation warp people’s character, denying them the opportunity to develop themselves freely, to cultivate their gifts and realize their full human potential. Living without a decent education, enough food to eat, and enough money to pay the bills forces people to harden themselves simply to survive, to kill the parts of themselves that don’t directly serve the struggle to make ends meet. The mere perception of scarcity induces a similar self-murder for those at the top of the economic ladder. The rigors of competition compel a blind, single-minded focus on profit and the abandonment of interests and talents which don’t pass the “marketability” test. Under the current system, to do what you love is a luxury, a privilege afforded only to a lucky few rather than the birthright of the many.

Of course, there are exceptions, like the custodians who provoked me into writing this piece to begin with: university janitors who pursue their artistic vocation in their spare time (like the prizewinning novelist Caitriona Lally), call center employees who devote themselves to music when they have a moment to themselves, subway janitors who pen noir novels like Enrique Ferrari, bus drivers-cum-writers like Magnus Mills. But it is much harder to keep that flame of self-cultivation alive in a system which demands that we deform ourselves daily at work. The French even have a term for the way our jobs distort our character: déformation professionnelle, “professional deformation.” It is a rare person, one with atypical conviction or unusual reserves of energy, who can reject the message sent by their profession and economic position to pursue what they truly love.

We are all diminished by existence in a world where value is measured by the wealth at one’s command and intelligence (or lack thereof) is assumed based on one’s occupation. Until we’ve reached the point where our society no longer measures value using money, the first step towards disentangling these things is to pay necessary jobs a dignified wage. The more challenging step is to combat the unconscious or semi-conscious habits of mind that equate one’s job with one’s well-deserved station in life or point to success stories under the current system as a way of distracting from the immense waste of human potential which comes from a system that condemns billions to poverty and undereducation. The great scientist Stephen Jay Gould expressed this sentiment particularly eloquently: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Let us hope that future Einsteins of the developing world and the developed world’s lower classes will receive the recognition and cultivation they deserve—and that all of us, Einsteins or no, will live in a world where we have what we need to flourish.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.