Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Working Class Values, Part Three


5. RELIGIOSITY. Working class people wear religious affiliation on their sleeves—even though they never, ever talk religion publicly. Having worked at two factories, I have never heard one worker discuss God aloud, and the only book in my hands I’ve ever seen my colleagues look squeamish at was by Billy Graham. They “do” religion, but never discuss it.

Instead, closely related to sloganeering, the working class literally wear their religious affiliations. T-shirt slogans make the most common forms of public witness. One folksy colleague favors an image of a cowboy and horse drinking from a stream, captioned “Rivers of living water will flow from within them. John 7:38.” Another wears an image of Jesus as a video game character, captioned “John 3:16—Hii Saved Me.”

Mixing and matching pop culture images lets workers convey both faith and personality. Those wanting to look hip mash-up rock band logos or brand trademarks. Others go for more nostalgic references, like the cowboy or a Thomas Kinkade painting. Though the faith expressed is uniformly Christian, religiosity, like sloganeering, separates in-group members from outsiders.

Note that religiosity does not translate into church attendance. Many in the working class feel uncomfortable in ordinary church services. This is amplified for second and third shift workers. Scanning a recent newsletter from my own church, besides services, a midday stay-at-home moms’ book group, and a sunrise bible study, all church activities occur in evenings and weekends—what church leadership, overwhelmingly middle class, mistakenly consider “after work.”

Church is just one more area where the working class are constantly reminded they don’t belong.

6. EGALITARIANISM. The working class is a collage of people who have limited means, limited opportunity, hard luck, or diminished expectations. What they all have in common is that they’re in this mess together. Unlike the middle classes, who divide themselves up (remember what I said about cubicles), the working class stay in close proximity for a prolonged time.

Breaktime exemplifies this. Everyone flocks to one of two places: either the indoor breakroom or the outdoor smoking shelter. No matter where one goes, conversation is the norm. Everyone, even new hires, is addressed as a friend and equal. And anyone who, like me, chooses neither location (I don’t smoke and dislike the breakroom’s continuous Fox News) endures the isolation of not being spoken to.

Some of this attitude is enforced by management. We’re assigned name badges, highlighting our first names in large letters, but our last names in vanishingly tiny type. This results in an unearned level of informality and enforced cheerfulness, but it also means everyone, from bosses to line managers to the lowliest new hires, speaks to one another on the same level.

This equality can be abused. Because everyone helps everyone else, some newbies rush in to lend a hand where it’s unneeded, even unwanted, and wind up underfoot. Those who last learn when to ease up on the open-handedness. Just because everyone is equal doesn’t mean everyone wants a piece of everyone else. We have sharing for that (q.v.).

Obery Hendricks defines hegemony as “the process by which the lines between the interests of an oppressed group and those of the class that dominates it become blurred by the systematic efforts of the oppressor to obscure or hide them.” By that standards, the well-heeled have gone to great lengths to force hegemony on the working class.

This doesn’t mean just the wealthy, who yoke top-tier tax breaks and international free trade to conventional morality. The middle class often deride the poor for their untidy homes, unkempt lawns, and disinterest in suburban convention. Carl Paladino, 2010 New York gubernatorial candidate, openly claimed that the poor remained poor, not because of systemic disadvantage or diminished opportunity, but because they lacked basic hygiene.

But consider it from the other angle. If some privileged class barged into your community, insisting that you could aspire to their level of prestige if you simply adapted your habits to mimic them, how would you react? We know it’s absurd. We would not all become Manhattan financial managers if we built more steel skyscrapers. We would resist such a colonial imposition by doubling down on our current mode of life.

Which is exactly what working class values permit. The group identity provided by these values, and others I still have yet to discover and explore, let America’s poor and struggling define their own identities, rather than having someone else’s identity imposed upon them. And I, for one, can’t blame them.

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading this series with interest, as I grew up working-class and still retain those values, despite my degrees.
    Those from other social classes need to understand that the lawn doesn't have an intrinsic need [i]to be mown[/i]. It doesn't even have to be [i]there[/i].