I am what I am and what the world has made me.
Herman Melville, Billy Budd
Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.
Michele Obama, Becoming
Sociologists have a concept of feeling rules that most people have experienced and that perfectly illustrates how culture works. Feeling rules are “social guidelines about what individuals should feel and how they should express their feelings in a given situation.”1
A feeling rule is both outside us as what “society” expects and inside us as our “conscience.” We can feel it putting pressure on us to think or feel a certain way that we may not actually think or feel—not feeling sad at a funeral, for example. We can attempt to conform our feeling to how we’re expected to feel, or we can stick with how we actually feel and disdain the rule. Whether we do the one or the other is probably influenced by other cultural rules—a sense that we should generally fit in as best we can so as not to disrupt others, for example, or a sense that we should always be independent or authentic. With remarks, looks, and other behavior, other people enforce the feeling rules that influence us, but we nonetheless can feel our freedom to decide how to react.
This is the way culture is. It provides rules for what to expect of ourselves and others—guidelines but also pressures. And though culture rules are experienced as being in the social world outside us, what others expect, they are internalized in one way or another, sometimes consciously but mostly not. How we internalize a set of culture rules is somewhat different for each of us, as some rules inevitably have more weight than others.
Jessi Streib’s study of cross-class marriages suggests that feeling rules vary substantially by one’s class of origin. Those from professional families are taught to manage their feelings, whereas working-class families encourage spontaneous expressions of feeling—including both anger and laughter—as “signs of authenticity and integrity.” Spouses of middle-class origin are less likely to allow themselves to feel intensely, especially around anger and conflict, and according to Streib, this often makes the working-class spouse the “emotional leader” in the marriage because both “feelings and discussion of feelings were … not threatening or uncomfortable to them but normal parts of relationships.” Streib found the following oppositions. Working-class rules “called for feeling and expressing emotions intensely and quickly,” while middle-class ones “called for feeling and expressing emotions calmly and slowly.” Likewise, working-class rules encourage one to “express a wide range of emotions spontaneously,” while middle-class rules favor expressing “a narrow range of emotions after processing them.”2
I think Streib’s interpretation is both insightful and broadly correct, but the difference between feeling rules and actual feeling—and therefore the need for individual human agency to reconcile them, at least on occasion—suggests that there is great room for variation among different individuals within the same class culture. There are introverted and extroverted people in all classes, for example, and Italian Americans are generally more emotionally expressive than Anglo or German Americans, regardless of class. Likewise, there are stoics (or people attempting to be stoics) in all classes. Other things affect culture rules besides class. Culture is about the rules, not the way each and every individual actually thinks, feels, or acts but rather the kind of social guidelines or pressures predominant in the social world within which individuals live and make choices. One of the core dispositions a college education typically acculturates, for example, is a reliance on evidence and reasoning versus emotion. In the educated middle class, people are often told that being “too emotional” is “unprofessional.” In the working class, emotion is much more likely to be responded to with equal and sometimes opposite emotion. Emotions are not only respected more in working-class life than in middle-class professionalism but they are also expected even when not respected and are experienced as “normal parts of relationships,” not as disruptions in those relationships. This doesn’t mean that middle-class people are never emotional or that working-class people always are. It means that they live largely in different social worlds, with different kinds and degrees of social guidelines and cultural pressures, most of which they have internalized, however imperfectly.
Different cultures deeply affect the way people live their lives, but they don’t determine them. Some cultural rules (such as Judie’s and my child-rearing approach) are so deeply embedded as to be invisible, but others are readily apparent and articulated in various sayings and rules of thumb. Because cultures are both implicit and explicit, both tacit and expressed, and because they can be and are internalized in different ways and shape and frame the very way we see and act in the world, cultures are slippery things to describe and interpret.
Class crossovers like me often experience the cultures of class as conflicting and envision them as opposites, either/or binaries, social guidelines that pull us in different directions. And that is how I present them in this chapter—as categorical differences. But this does not mean I am unaware that actual living, breathing human beings are living within a daunting variety of cultural proclivities based on how they have been socialized within families and other social institutions and, importantly, by their own individual agency. Rather, my claim is that there are distinct class cultures that play central, though not exclusive, roles in shaping people’s lives and that you can best see the differences when they are or appear to be in conflict with each other. Thus, this chapter presents a binary interpretation of two broad class cultures, an interpretation of what the way-of-life rules are for each of these cultures and how they are different from one another. The basic conception here is that they are conflicting human proclivities that prioritize different aspects of and goals for human life.
Though I try to be even-handed in presenting and evaluating the two class cultures, that attempt is complicated by the fact that professional middle-class culture takes itself to be mainstream, the best and most appropriate culture, or even the only genuine culture. This requires me, as I read it, to be more critical of middle-class culture while defending working-class culture against what I see as middle-class prejudices and misunderstandings. On the other hand, while I am not uncritical of working-class ways, I am generally indulgent of both cultures, thinking that both have positives and negatives, advantages and disadvantages, like most cultures across the world in human history.
The Lineup of Categorical Differences
Nearly twenty years ago I developed with Barbara Jensen a version of the table of class characteristics presented in table 6.1.3 I have refined this table somewhat for myself, starting with the notion, as explained in chapter 5, that middle-class professionals pursue careers (at least for the first half to two-thirds of their lives) while working-class people generally have “just jobs” that cause and allow them to make a stronger distinction between living and earning a living. Still my lineup of the categorical differences in class cultures is simply suggestive, not so much fully developed ideas as observations and notions that have helped me map my social realities and that I think might be insightful for others.
The basic conception here is that working-class cultural rules prioritize being and belonging, while middle-class professionalism gives greatest weight to doing and becoming. From these different orientations, several different cultural characteristics derive. Though I’m not always sure of the causal connections, my claim is that these characteristics have a logical and psychological coherence that makes them genuine cultures that guide life in different, if not opposite, directions.
Being versus Doing
Being and doing are opposing emphases for living a life, as are belonging and becoming. Though many of us try to achieve both or a balance between them, what is valuable about a culture is that it tells us which is more important than the other. It nudges or outright shoves us in one direction rather than another. I’ll begin with the being/doing opposition because it is likely the most counterintuitive.
The “doing” in the being/doing opposition goes counter to a common usage. Working-class and especially blue-collar people often see themselves as doers, while middle-class professionals are merely talkers or pencil pushers. Likewise, middle-class professionals, especially managers, most often see themselves as conceiving and planning, while workers merely do the work to execute the plan. In both these usages, the working-class person is conceived as the doer, more committed to actual doing than to thinking stuff up or, alternatively, restricted to doing the work others plan and direct. No matter how you say it, this separation of planning from execution is a key class reality, but it contrasts doing with creative thinking or decision making rather than with being.
An opposition of doing and being is about how you think of yourself and others. Do you define and evaluate yourself by what you do—by your achievements and accomplishments—or by the kind of person you are as a friend, a worker, a parent, a sister, or a neighbor? My observation is that middle-class professionalism is dominated by an achievement orientation that emphasizes what you do over the kind of person you are. It is not that professionals don’t want to be good people, however that is defined, but rather that we worry less about it, often taking it for granted, than about achieving some goal, often one with special distinction involving money, prestige, or power. We are ambitious to do something significant, to leave our mark on the world, to accomplish something important or valuable, especially something that gains wide recognition. Middle-class professionalism encourages and reinforces this aspiration, not always monomaniacally but very strongly and with a great deal of certainty.
Working-class culture counsels somewhat the opposite of this. Life is not about a list of singular accomplishments on a résumé but instead is about the kind of person you are day in and day out, often your steadiness or, though nobody would use the word, your “consistency” over time: being consistent with your own true self, for example, as well as being consistently a hard worker and a good parent, workmate, friend, or spouse. The working-class focus is on character, not accomplishment, and the intensity of that focus can be hard to see from a middle-class doer perspective.
There is, for example, a common fatalism about character in working-class life, as people are inclined to take themselves as they are and envision themselves as having a true self, a ready-made character to which they need to be true while also striving to be good. Being true to one’s self is important for both moral and practical reasons. Morally, being a phony, trying to be something you’re not, “putting on the dog,” and “putting yourself above others” are moral failings. Practically, it is unwise “to get outside yourself,” to try to go beyond your limits, to try to be something you’re not, because in doing so you’re likely to do something foolish or at least “look like a fool” or make potentially fatal mistakes, or become a phony “in over your head” in more ways than one. The idea of trying to become some other, some better self—which to my mind is at the heart of middle-class culture—seems both unnatural and unwise in a working-class world. It is better to try to fit into groups where your ingrained weaknesses are accepted because they are offset by others’ strengths just as your strengths, whatever they are, offset others’ weaknesses.
To middle-class eyes such as mine, the working-class way can seem merely passive acceptance, a disabling complacency, and a view that severely limits horizons and encourages low expectations. In my view, all of that is true but only part of the story. In a being culture focused on character, character building is a vital aspect of life even if within the limits of your own given character. There are external cultural pressures to be a good person. Though the specifics of what constitutes such a person vary by time and place, a common one is simply being tough enough to handle life’s inevitable difficulties, often including lousy, dirty, tedious, and/or dangerous jobs, but in any case tough enough not to be broken by the hardships that are an expected part of everybody’s life.4 How tough life actually is varies by circumstance, but the culture never envisions being tough enough as something that is easy to achieve. Likewise, working hard and having personal integrity (again defined differently by time and place) are usually core working-class values, as is being a good parent, workmate, friend, neighbor, or spouse (or at least some of these). The point, however, is that none of these are experienced as easy to live up to, easy to be, because one’s own true self is experienced as flawed and limited, and as a result life is often lived as a daily drama of reconciling your own limits with what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself.
For example, British historian Allison Light reviewed a number of Victorian workers’ memoirs and focused on that of William Swan, a London bricklayer in the 1840s whom she sees as typical. Swan lived in truly terrible and worsening conditions, “never having funds,” but his memoir’s primary focus was on “a cosmic struggle within himself” between his Baptist conception of what a good man should be and “his own failings, his need for strong drink and his longing to let off steam in swearing or womanizing.” This “inwardly strong life,” according to Light, would have been and might still be a surprise for middle- and upper-class readers had they read these memoirs, but she finds them impressive in the strength of “the conviction that getting on in the world was not what mattered most” and “that every human being was capable of ‘heartwork,’ and of fellowship with others.”5 More than a century and a half later, these commitments to pursuing good character, including fellowship if not always religious salvation, rather than achieving success still seem apt to me.
In contrast, in the middle-class we do not generally see life as requiring much endurance and toughness and are therefore much less likely to tolerate unfavorable conditions. We tend to act to change those conditions rather than adjust ourselves to be capable of enduring them, which is what working-class cultivation of “toughness” is. In pursuing our goals we must overcome obstacles, whether through hard work, intelligence, or scheming. As we often say about ourselves, we are or should be proactive, not reactive. Even though we have a more dynamic sense of self, we try, or should try, to adjust the world to our needs even as we try to mold ourselves to become ever more effective in the world. A middle-class sense of character is centered around agency, both in improving ourselves and in better adjusting the world to our needs and goals; thus, our sense of character includes becoming in order to do more and better. Our character building is in the service of doing. Working-class character is about being good in and for itself or at least persistently trying to be.
As a middle-class professional, I generally favor the middle-class way. I’ve lived my life that way, and both as a general education teacher and within the labor movement, I have spent a lot of my doing in trying to cultivate larger senses of individual and collective agency among working adults. But there is a compelling logic to working-class ways, given the dramatic differences between our life circumstances and theirs.
Working-class people are often seen as undermining their own interests by blaming themselves for their misfortunes, whatever they are, and it is true that this often undermines both their will to oppose their circumstances and their own self-worth—and in some situations to a degree that is psychologically disabling.6 But it is quite clear from even the simplest conversation that working-class people are well aware of the socioeconomic and political circumstances that undermine their and their families’ well-being, even if some are inclined toward misleading scapegoats. They will often eloquently complain and denounce those injustices, but most of the time they see no way to effectively change them—and most of the time they are right. The well-worn counsel of middle-class people like me encouraging working-class people to be more like us would make sense (and actually did make a lot more sense during the Glorious Thirty) if there were wall-to-wall jobs that support careers. But there aren’t, and there won’t be in the future. And while many middle-class people seem not to see that, most working-class people do if for no other reason than they and most everybody they know are doing the just-jobs work that needs to be done. The working-class strategy is to focus on controlling those things you can control, and that often turns out to be your own character and behavior. It’s not that they don’t want to change the world, and there is probably a tenth of them who work all or a good part of their lives doing things to change it or to prepare for changing it, but rather that they see so few opportunities for doing so. And those opportunities, both individual and collective, have been diminishing for more than forty years now.
Working-class culture is founded on the necessity of giving away part of your day or week, and thus part of yourself, in order to earn a living. In my observation—which occurred during the thirty best years for working people in US history, followed by four decades of decline resulting in conditions that are still not as bad as what preceded those thirty years—a founding working-class strategy of life involves ceding control in order to gain control. This strategy is embedded in the wage relationship. In the classical formulation, you trade eight hours of toil, eight hours of being told what to do, of suspending or at least limiting your freedom of action, in order to have the means to have eight hours for what you will. As I argue in chapter 7, this pattern of ceding control in one area to gain or enhance your control in another is repeated in various aspects of working-class life. Those eight hours where you get bossed around, for example, include some minutes and places where you gain control by ceding it during other parts of the workday. If I’m right about how core this strategy is, then the emphasis on personal character as well as on fellowship or belonging is part of steeling oneself for the day-to-day grind of (mostly) distasteful work, the earning part that gains the means for the living part.
The necessity of earning a living is, of course, shared with most middle-class professionals, but pursuing a career puts your self-worth completely at stake at work, whereas the working-class division of work and living is looking to have good—or at least tolerable—relationships in both parts of their lives. Workers want to be and be perceived as good workers. Professionals want to do and be perceived as doing excellent or outstanding work.
It is, of course, not so clear-cut in most people’s lives, but the cultural emphases, the direction of the nudges, should be recognizable. I’d say there is a continuum, with one end being what Yale professor William Deresiewicz sees as “an extreme version of upper-middle-class practice—the unrelenting pressure … to excel, the willful disregard of everything except ‘achievement.’ ”7 On the other end are those working-class types (mostly male) who are comfortable, even perversely proud, of being lazy workers and irresponsible parents. In between there is a lot of shared territory in wanting both to do good and to be good but with distinctly different emphases.
These differences have profound consequences for how working-class people and their culture are perceived and misperceived by middle-class interpreters. For example, social scientists have widely observed that working-class parents counsel their children to be obedient, particularly in school but also to all adults. Jessica Calarco, however, calls this a “strategy of deference” that contrasts with middle-class parents’ instructing their children to adopt a “strategy of influence,” speaking up for themselves and negotiating with teachers and parents for special arrangements. For Andrew Cherlin, on the other hand, obedience is not a strategy but instead is a simple working-class value that dates back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, when working-class parents “placed much less emphasis on self-reliance and more on respecting and observing authority.”8 For Cherlin, there have been two centuries of simple working-class obedience. What Calarco observed in her long-term ethnography of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders is a school strategy that includes working out things for yourself (what some might call “self-reliance”) rather than bothering the teacher, with working-class parents emphasizing character (primarily, working hard and taking responsibility for your actions) versus middle-class parents’ emphasis on the importance of individual agency in achieving academic success.9 Likewise, Krista Soria refers to “the values of humility and invisibility taught in working-class families” and how these contrast with middle-class expectations of “self-promotion, self-assurance, and visibility.”10
There is simple obedience in working-class life, but there is also strategy. Outside the criminal underground, parents typically want their kids to stay out of trouble and have the strength of character to steadily endure hard work for almost all of their lives. This begins in school, and it does involve obedience to authority. But working-class parents also are much more likely to let their kids run loose for great parts of the day and week when they’re not in school and also tend to tolerate disobedient behavior by their children as long as it occurs outside their observation and does not involve active mouthing back. Thus, the stated culture of obedience is supplemented by an implicit culture of freedom and autonomy in “making your own fun.” To working-class kids in this context, humility and invisibility can seem like tactics to avoid authority’s notice so you can do whatever you want. Paul Willis’s “lads” are one particular manifestation of this, one that is especially conscious of how out of sync they are and how rebellious they can be even while deferring to authority most of the time.11 Working-class obedience is not simple passivity. It’s not even always simple obedience. It is quite often just one part of a more complicated strategy for living a life when you expect a good part of it to be somewhere between difficult and miserable.
Middle-class interpreters are very keen to point out (convincingly) how both simple obedience and ingenious lad-like strategies reproduce the class positions and inequalities of working-class life. Many working-class people in my experience do indeed “sell themselves short,” but many more accurately calculate not only their chances for but also the undesirability of middle-class careers, and they adjust accordingly. There is not one culture that will work for everybody, and our middle-class tendency to think there is devalues and misunderstands other ways of doing things.
Given their actually existing circumstances, it is understandable why so many working-class people adopt strategies of deference, with an emphasis on their own character and behavior rather than on success in the wider world or, for the most part, collective action—an emphasis on being rather than doing. But either on its own terms or even in middle-class ones, is there any comparative value to the working-class way? I think there is.
I’ve argued in the previous chapter that integrity is more valued in working-class life than among middle-class professionals. Being good, trustworthy, and faithful to one’s friends and family and being true to who or what you are, these are the characteristics of working-class integrity. Though by no means unknown in middle-class life, these proclivities are subject to being undermined by that culture’s steady push toward achievement and success. It would not be surprising that a culture that cares more about integrity should have more of it. Likewise, it should not be surprising that a culture that emphasizes character over achievement is generally more ethical and trustworthy. Though dealing with somewhat different class terms, an important social science investigation has found exactly that. Paul K. Piff and his colleagues contend that “higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”12 Across seven different studies, they found that “relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory studies.” And among the reasons for this, they cite other research demonstrating that “upper-class individuals have been shown to be less cognizant of others and worse at identifying the emotions that others feel” and are “more disengaged during social interactions” and “less generous and altruistic.” As a result, higher-class people have a tendency to have “feelings of entitlement,” “a reduced concern for others’ evaluations,” and “increased goal-focus.” This seems a little cruel when applied to the broad spectrum of middle-class professionals, but Piff and his colleagues assert that in the aggregate there is a continuum that as income/wealth, education, and occupational status increase, so does unethical behavior.
A final note about authenticity in working-class culture. It’s true, as is often noted, that working-class people strongly value authenticity, even though they seldom use that word. But not using the word is an important part of achieving authenticity, which like “sincerity” tends to disappear the more explicitly you proclaim and pursue it.13 Working-class authenticity as we observe it from the outside is a result of a culture that emphasizes being, character, and integrity. It is a very positive characteristic of working-class life, but it has its downsides in limiting horizons and lowering expectations.
And this points to the most positive aspects of professionalism’s doing culture, its emphasis on achievement and accomplishment. We are more willing to pretend, to struggle to become something we are not yet—and may never be—in order to do something possibly spectacular but at least significant for ourselves and for others. With our higher expectations of ourselves and of the world, we are indeed more proactive most of the time, and it should not be surprising that an achievement culture achieves more, both individually and collectively. The professions, after all, have developed procedures and practices, from law and medicine to teaching and management, that have accomplished great good on net. The common working-class critique of us as having “poor quality [in our] interpersonal relations,” or being “fakes” and “phonies,” may be correct from their standpoint, but they fail to recognize that we are subjecting ourselves to a more complicated (and potentially compromising) interaction with the world not only as it is but also as both it and we might be.14 What’s more, inscribed to a large degree in the trajectory of professional middle-class life is an eventual transition from dead-ahead achievement and becoming to a greater emphasis on being adequate or good. As our family life becomes more interesting as our children grow and/or as our careers plateau, we feel the tug of being over doing. We’re not as bad as they think we are. But then, neither are they as bad as we, usually quite thoughtlessly, think they are.
Belonging versus Becoming
The opposition of working-class belonging and middle-class becoming is much better established, especially among working-class studies scholars, largely due to the pioneering work of counseling psychologist Barbara Jensen.15 But with different terminology and somewhat different emphases, more standard forms of social science investigation have substantiated the differences in class cultures on this score.
The contrast goes way back.16 William Foote Whyte, for example, in his 1943 classic Street Corner Society made a strong contrast between “college boys” and “corner boys”:
Chick and Doc … had conflicting attitudes toward social mobility. Chick [the college boy] judged men according to their capacity for advancing themselves. Doc [the corner boy] judged them according to their loyalty to their friends and their behavior in their personal relations.… Both the college boy and the corner boy want to get ahead. The difference between them is that the college boy either does not tie himself to a group of close friends or else is willing to sacrifice his friendship with those who do not advance as fast as he does. The corner boy is tied to his group by a network of reciprocal obligations from which he is either unwilling or unable to break away.17
This is the world in which I grew up and eventually became a college boy, and I like the neutral way Whyte formulates it. Doc’s priority for belonging is likely some combination of being “unwilling or unable to break away” from a tangled web of relationships that are typically experienced both as a burden or duty (“obligations”) and as support and security (the “reciprocal” part). As I’ve documented, in my day Doc could reasonably expect to “get ahead” without going to college and thereby abandoning his friends and family, just as Chick could in “breaking away.”
Doc and Chick, however, were working-class young men with much better prospects coming out of the Great Depression than the “Brothers” and “Hallway Hangers” Jay MacLeod studied in the late 1980s and 1990s in Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations & Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood. But the contrary directions chosen are the same—with the Brothers conventionally following the dictates of middle-class–oriented schooling in hopes of becoming some new and better self, while the Hallway Hangers hung together in their “reciprocal obligations,” sometimes involving criminal activity.18
Young people raised in more purely professional middle-class environments today, where nearly everybody goes to college after high school, are unlikely to have experienced the sense of belonging that has long been core to working-class life. They very often have a sense of reciprocal obligations to their parents and a desire to keep in touch with old friends, but they are moving forward—and being pushed forward by family and friends—in ways that will undermine those bonds and distance them from previous relationships. In middle-class life, becoming successful (however that is defined) is recognized as more important than maintaining relationships, and though commonly envisioned as not incompatible with sustaining relationships, becoming necessarily involves some distancing from them. The expectation is that young people will go away (not break away) to college and then pursue a professional career in a national labor market, which is also likely to require them to move. Distancing oneself from family and friends, though not desirable, is seen as a natural and normal part of life in the middle class. What’s important is to develop individual self-sufficiency that will allow you to properly mature and establish a life of your own making—at best visiting family and old friends once in a while.
Working-class commitment to belonging is born of need. With fewer financial resources and opportunities for advancement, and now with less steady and secure work, reciprocal obligations within a circle of family, friends, and workmates are often necessary for survival—for help, financial and otherwise, during the rough patches that are an expected part of life. But the fellowship of belonging is also a source of pleasure, even simple joy. Simply hanging out with people who know you exactly as you are, with no need or possibility for pretense or performance, who accept you warts and all, even if they might constantly rag on those warts, is among the rewards of living you earn by working for somebody else. Hanging out is less expensive than other forms of entertainment that enhance one’s cultural and social capital, but make no mistake, other kinds of cultural and social capital are being acquired in hanging out, and these are the kinds that are most often valued in working-class life.
This does not mean that working-class relationships are all peaches and cream. They are often filled with long-standing tensions and feuds, especially within families, and belonging includes many obligated tasks and behaviors against which you may chafe. Belonging also includes many instances of people not fulfilling their obligations, even some folks who regularly disappoint with their unreliability or unfaithfulness, sometimes fueled by alcohol or drugs. But there is an inexplicable reluctance to cast off even the worst offenders and a willingness to tolerate their weaknesses or draw protective boundaries around them. Repetitive cycles of forgiveness for even the worst behaviors in a belonging culture can be seen as pathological by a culture that most values individual becoming and independence. But as frustrating as it is for loyal and reliable members, it is comforting even for them, maybe especially for them, to experience the strength of bonds among those around them that cannot be broken, no matter how frayed or temporarily out of order they might be. This steadfast acceptance is more common within extended families than among friends, as the bonds are tighter, but they are both a desideratum and a general characteristic within working-class life. My settled-living family and Judie’s hard-living one were nothing like the rough, so-called dysfunctional extended families portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy and Heartland because we had many more steady and reliable adults around us, including mothers who loved us and were paying attention as J. D. Vance’s and Sarah Smarsh’s mothers were so heartbreakingly not.19 But even within the struggling, unsettled families portrayed by Vance and Smarsh, there are thick and intense bonds, especially with grandparents but also with other relatives. Smarsh, for example, was only periodically in the same household as her younger brother Matt, but when she finally breaks away from what she sees as the pathologies of her family, she feels an overwhelming sense of guilt and betrayal for not being there to protect him from those pathologies, even though she could only occasionally protect and comfort him when she was there. This is a sense of belonging that I suspect is rarer in middle-class life with its steadier but less intense relationships. Though working-class people are less likely to leave the bonds of family, neighborhood, or region because they value belonging more than becoming, when they do they are more likely to take some of the belonging with them, if only as heartache.
The opposition of belonging and becoming can be stated in more ways than one, and some social scientists have captured the class difference with the less evocative terms “independence” and “interdependence.”20
Management professors Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend study “the dysfunctional behaviors and physiological costs that can result when individuals’ cultural beliefs collide with the dominant cultural beliefs of organizations.”21 They state the working-class/middle-class contrast like this:
Our body of ongoing research shows that people from working-class backgrounds tend to understand themselves as interdependent with and highly connected to others. Parents teach their children the importance of following the rules and adjusting to the needs of others, in part because there is no economic safety net to fall back on. Common sayings include “You can’t always get what you want” and “It’s not all about you”; values such as solidarity, humility, and loyalty take precedence.
In contrast, people from middle- and upper-class contexts tend to understand themselves as independent and separate from others. Parents teach kids the importance of cultivating their personal preferences, needs, and interests. Common sayings include “The world is your oyster” and “Your voice matters”; values such as uniqueness, self-expression, and influence take precedence.22
Stephens and Townsend state this differently than I would, but among their findings is that middle-class culture encourages us to individuate ourselves, what they call a “preference for difference from others,” while working-class culture has “a normative preference for similarity to others.”23
This research supports the notion that the class cultures are starkly different in their values of solidarity and individualism. But I doubt that a “preference for similarity” captures the character of working-class belonging, because it misses the phenomenon of fitting in among working-class groups, a process that actually allows and expects a lot more difference than is typical in middle-class life, where everybody is expected to be an individual. This may seem paradoxical, but in a belonging culture that sees relationships within a group as sources of strength and support, the expectation and acceptance of differences in people’s strengths and weaknesses are in fact sources of not only strength but also self-relaxation and pleasure. Differences in strengths and weaknesses are seen as potentially complementing each other if individuals are willing to take on reciprocal obligations. What Stephens and Townsend see as a preference for similarity is more likely a process of mutual fitting in with the other individuals in their group. It is a process of seeking or maintaining group cohesion and solidarity that requires a kind of effortless work to make differences complementary rather than conflicting. This should count as both social and cultural capital. English working-class academic Lynsey Hanley was dismissive of kids who did not take an interest in school and who seemed addicted to hanging out, but though a striver herself, she recognized that “it was another way of learning and being, most importantly a way of learning just how to be with other people without making a conscious activity out of doing it.”24
There is not an articulated working-class ideology of belonging as there is with middle-class individualism, and it is not unusual for people within both class cultures to rhetorically exaggerate the degree to which they are self-reliant. But because working-class belonging is based in the everyday practical need for others, it has developed an array of stratagems for maintaining group cohesion and individual relationships within the group. Belonging gives that maintenance much more time and attention than is common in middle-class life, as people seek to fit in while also working to maintain their own (semifated) individuality within the group. The difference for middle-class culture is that sense of becoming, that striving for individual achievement and success; folks surely want recognition and acceptance by larger groups, but they expect to get that not so much by fitting in as by doing something outstanding and exceptional. It is not that relationships are seen as unimportant in middle-class life but that they usually demand and get less attention and sometimes come into conflict with our individual goals and larger prospects.
I like that Stephens and Townsend use the word “solidarity” in describing working-class values, but that word can be misleading if it conjures images of collective action, as in strikes and protests. I have written about strikes, and I grew up in a family that participated in massive nationwide strikes every three years until I was seventeen.25 These are great feats of organization and solidarity, but that is not what I mean by everyday working-class culture being solidaristic (or what I take Stephens and Townsend to mean by “solidarity”). Rather, solidarity is practiced—and expected—on a daily basis in managing relationships within small circles of family, friends, and workmates and helping and supporting each other. It’s more like personal loyalty, but “solidaristic” points to the tendency of these personal loyalties to get extended to other working people to whom you do not have personal loyalties (especially those of one’s own race, ethnicity, or occupation), an extension that only once in a while results in organized collective action. Everyday working-class solidarity may be the soil in which to grow organized collective action, but in the first instance it probably works against that broader sense of unity. In any case, a broader sense of occupational or class solidarity is not natural to the working class but its everyday solidarity provides a seed that can be cultivated depending on the circumstance.
Another way that a belonging culture contrasts with a becoming one is what Robert Putnam identified as two forms of social capital: bonding and bridging. As Barbara Jensen pointed out, in working-class life “deep, loyal, we-are-part-of-one-another bonding” is more common, whereas bridging is more middle-class, and though “less personal” and with “weaker ties,” it “can unite many people across wide differences.”26 Networking is a LinkedIn form of bridging capital as well as a skill that is now routinely taught to budding professionals, who sometimes make a distinction between network friends and real friends. Network friends are friendly but instrumental relationships, and the danger for professionals is that our striving for goals, our purpose-driven lives, may instrumentalize all our relationships. Becoming requires more focus on ourselves rather than on others, and our ideology of individualism and our expectation of self-acting independence can hardly help but deemphasize those real relationships. This is much less likely in a working-class world where belonging is more important than becoming or achieving. But it also means that working-class groups, circles of family and friends, can become “in-turned tribes” that both exclude others outside their tribe and may have difficulties dealing with them honestly and directly.27
Everybody both bonds and bridges with friends and acquaintances, but the different cultural emphases on what is most important shape different results, different lives. As Jensen quotes Xavier de Sousa, “Bonding social capital is good for ‘getting by,’ and bridging social capital is good for ‘getting ahead.’ ”28 This formulation, however, may understate how much working-class belonging is experienced as a given and an end in itself, not just a means to get by and make do. As a given, one’s circle is experienced as a tangled web of relationships from which you are not free to exit, at least not in an uncomplicated way; what Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann calls “the pre-existing relationships in our lives” are burdens of obligation, not all of them healthy, as well as sources of support and pleasure, also not necessarily healthy.29 The sense of being trapped or suffocated in your preexisting relationships is not uncommon in working-class life, with its urge to break away, occasionally resulting in actual breaking away. Belonging is something you endure as well as enjoy, and as in all things, the working class is usually better at enduring than the middle class.
Many today see the economic decline of the American working class in the last forty years as undermining this culture of belonging. They point both to the decline of labor unions and other community-level institutions such as churches and ethnic lodges and to the decline of marriage unions and the greatly increased absence of fathers in both white and black working-class families.30 I have observed this deterioration within younger generations of my own extended family. I see worsening conditions challenging the culture, eroding it slowly over time, but I also see the strengthening of it as the need becomes greater. My guess is that there is a significant gender difference here, with working-class men increasingly detached from family life and other social connections and with women increasingly dependent on those connections. Indeed, some young women save themselves through their gritty mothering of their children, usually with a little help from grandparents and other relatives and friends.31
My impression is that the working-class culture I grew with is not as strong or as self-confident today as it was in my time, though I am perhaps too influenced by having an extended family in a deindustrialized place, one that saw the best of the good times during the Glorious Thirty and among the worst of the bad times since. There is plenty of evidence, however, that the contrast between working-class and middle-class cultures persists and may be even wider today. Likewise, there is no evidence for what Robert Putnam and others have called the “collapse of the working-class family” and with it the culture of belonging. Comparing men with college degrees against those with only high school or less, for example, Putnam is able to show a big and growing class difference in the percentages of fathers who are not living with their children—4 percent among the college-educated versus 16 percent among the less educated working class. This may indeed, and probably does, indicate a weakening of family ties among men, but even discounting the role of mothers, it’s hard to see how the 84 percent of working-class fathers who live with and ostensibly take responsibility for their children evidences a “collapse.”32 And it is a very different story among women.
Laura Delgado is presented as an example of “downscaling for survival” in Marianne Cooper’s Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times.33 From a settled-living working-class family, Delgado has experienced a downward economic spiral since her husband lost his job. She has three children, ages ten to sixteen, and in Cooper’s portrait Delgado consistently doubles down on belonging the worse things get. Cooper sees this merely as a strategy Delgado uses for controlling emotions and expectations by using positive thinking to both mask and deal with her declining circumstances. It is undoubtedly that too, but Delgado is a philosopher of working-class belonging, articulating all manner of its common characteristics as labeled in table 6.1. Cooper, however, sees merely downscaling to “nothing more than being close to family and being present for her children,” not a different approach to living a life whose utility actually increases during hard times. When her electricity is shut off, Delgado makes a game out of it for her children—“We use candles at night, like we’re camping”—and instructs them in how their being together (and healthy) is more important than having electricity for the TV and refrigerator, telling them how her grandmother taught her that “having nothing isn’t always a bad thing.” At one point, she tells Cooper, “I’m blessed with a beautiful kid, and I live in California [surrounded by extended family], and I have a great family and friends.” Cooper calls this “repression work” masking Delgado’s increasingly desperate circumstances. But what is more important—having electricity or a tightly knit family that works with and supports each other? Claiming the latter might be an effective strategy for holding yourself together, having a mental attitude that helps you cope from day to day, but it is not merely that. It is, more fundamentally, a choice for the value of being and belonging over becoming and achieving. And though it may not be a good choice in all circumstances, I can’t help thinking that in the long run it’s generally the better, more human choice and that in Delgado’s circumstances it’s especially valuable.
Status and Social Class
It is natural for one culture to discount and misunderstand a different culture, but of all the ways this happens, projection of one’s own onto other cultures may be the most distorting. Such projection happens routinely in the professional middle class concerning status. The middle class naively assumes that everybody is as concerned with status and rank as they are and that there is a singular and uniform hierarchy that everyone recognizes. Neither assumption is accurate. Status is not as important for working-class people, and insofar as they rank others, it is on criteria of being and belonging, not on socioeconomic position or achievement.
I’d go so far as to say that working-class culture is ideologically antistatus, as so many aspects of it involve sanctioning people for putting themselves above or thinking they are better than others. This is very commonly experienced by class crossovers like me, as friends and relatives seem very hasty to find our using “big words,” for example, to be efforts at putting ourselves above rather than using more precise and accurate terms. I have never met a class crossover who did not find this constant effort to bring us back down to earth both irritating and sad—irritating because it seems unfairly judgmental and sad both because we’re not sure how true it might be and because it points to a certain can’t-go-home-again distance between our new and old worlds.
Working-class life is full of various practices and sayings that express contempt for any system of status, let alone any empathy for the status anxiety that is so widespread in the daily life of the middle class. Working people are simultaneously defensive about and contemptuous of people looking down on them. Though there are moments when they are cowed by it, as in middle-class institutions such as college or a doctor’s office, and plenty of places where they need to show deference to a hierarchy of power and authority, as in most workplaces, the culture counsels them to be inwardly dismissive of it, actively but effortlessly resisting any fundamental acceptance of middle-class appraisals of them. When this inner dismissiveness works, and it often does, the potential pain and humiliation of being seen as of lesser importance and worth cannot touch them—it’s just the way some people think, people you don’t like much, and you shouldn’t care what they think of you. Still, it’s always hard to face people you can tell think you’re inferior, especially if you recognize that as the world goes, they probably are more valued than you are.
“You’re no better than anybody else, and nobody is better than you” was the officially articulated ideology in my family, and I heard it repeatedly as I was growing up, particularly when I seemed to be especially good at something. Many of my working-class students in Chicago recognized the saying, and most others agreed that their families had that moral attitude if not that exact saying. Though perhaps not universally present in the working class, this antistatus attitude is very widespread among them and is much less common, though not nonexistent, among middle-class professionals. This does not mean, of course, that working-class people always or even usually live up to that injunction. Some workers, especially men, are delighted to look down on what they see as the undeserving poor, and there is a long history of working-class whites psychologically enjoying their “wages of whiteness” in relation to working-class blacks.34 Cultures tell you what you should do, not necessarily what you actually do.
Working-class people do rank themselves and others, but they do it based on a different set of criteria for evaluation, values of character and personal relationships: for example, whether they and others work hard and are honest and whether they are dependable family members and faithful to their friends (and/or religion). As I’ve documented above, they typically judge middle-class professionals harshly based on character deficiencies in the way we treat other people and the exaggerated view we often have of ourselves. Likewise, there is often a settled-living prejudice against “the poor,” often shared among the hard-living working class mostly around perceived lazy work habits and insufficient reliability as a family member, friend, or workmate. Still, both evaluations are complicated in practice and style. Working-class people are often effusively appreciative of bosses, doctors, lawyers, and teachers who do not look down on them, for example. Likewise, among people they know, they make nuanced distinctions between the undeserving and deserving poor that are based on their reading of the evidence, not prejudice. And they will most often provide help and support even for those they judge undeserving, especially if a family member or longtime friend. However, among people they do not know, most are inclined to attribute bad economic circumstances to bad character traits, and among whites this can be explicitly racist. In my observation, working-class people greatly exaggerate the number and proportion of the undeserving poor (by their definitions) among people they do not know. But they find much higher proportions of deserving poor among people they do know. Regardless, this is a status system but one that uses moral criteria to divide people into something like good guys, bad guys, and okay guys. The complication in style is that some people are inclined to stern and dismissive judgmentalism, while others express a sad frustration that so-and-so is lazy, dishonest, and unreliable (or addicted to one substance or another). The latter group is always open to the possibility of redemption, the former generally not.
Most middle-class interpreters, including social scientists, fail to see this class-cultural difference. They assume that working-class people have both the same intense concern with status and the same status system that middle-class professionals have. Based on this assumption, they cannot help but interpret working-class antistatus attitudes as involving “class envy,” the “healing of class injuries,” or a merely “reactive identity” based on working people’s recognition and resentment of their low standing in an agreed-upon hierarchy.35
As justifiably esteemed a set of social scientists as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett construct a whole book around this false assumption. Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s earlier The Spirit Level had shown conclusively how large degrees of income and wealth inequality correlate with poor health and wellness in a wide variety of countries. But they then went on to argue, in The Inner Level, that poor health is caused not by economic inequality itself but by how the experience of these inequalities creates increased status anxieties and what they call “heightened social evaluative threat.”36 Rife with examples from upper-middle-class life such as “dinner party anxiety” and plastic surgery and with a liberal use of the middle-class “imperial we,”37 Wilkinson and Pickett assume that statements such as the following cover all people: “Signs of our concern for social appearance are everywhere. It is as if most of us fear being seen for what we are, as if acceptance depended on hiding some awful truth about ourselves.”38 It’s clear from this unintended satirical gloss on middle-class professionalism that their research did not include the Conemaugh PNA, the Tire Hill VFW, or millions of other working-class settings where there is no concern for social appearance and there are very low levels of social evaluative threat and lots of taken-for-granted acceptance. Wilkinson and Pickett make what in working-class studies seems like a rookie mistake but is actually widespread among social scientists: using the word “status” to indicate hierarchies of power, of money, and of worth and self-esteem as if they were all the same thing, assuming that more power and money is coincident with more societal worth and self-esteem. It just doesn’t work that way in the working class, not usually and not often.
Working-class people almost uniformly recognize that they have less power and authority and less income and wealth than others.39 And though in a variety of ways they consistently seek more control of their lives, which requires more money and more power, they generally accept their position in society. But while there are those who do, most do not accept the middle-class version of their personal and social worth, and the culture actively disdains such acceptance. They have their own criteria for ranking people, and it is heavily weighted toward moral criteria of character and relationships that they see as out of sync with the values of higher-class positions. Beginning in adolescence if not before, many actively disdain middle-class ways and choose to remain working class. It is not uncommon for adults to regret their adolescent choices, especially nowadays, but the regret is almost always about their lack of money and power over their own lives, not about status, not about how their betters see them or, except in the direst of circumstances, their self-esteem. They feel they should have tried harder and done better in school in order to have better jobs today, but they still don’t want to be people like us—that is, they might envy the kinds of wages, working conditions, and living standards we have but not the kinds of people we are. This a very common, if not universal, way of looking at things in the working class, and the fact that sophisticated social scientists can’t see or even guess at it reflects their own social and cultural class isolation.
Scholars with long experience of working people, however, are well aware of the antistatus ethos and working-class pride. Historian Alison Light, for example, found the slum neighborhood where she had family roots to be “a close-knit, hard-working community forging a pride in itself out of suffering and generosity” in the early twentieth century, when conditions were much worse than they are today:
Where critics saw the factory worker as coarse and common, the girls themselves often pitied their sheltered contemporaries, those “daughters of educated men,” immured at home, unable to fend for themselves and constantly chaperoned.… The reports on health and housing expose appalling conditions and invite our sympathy, but the testimonies of the residents themselves resist their victimization, insisting on a way of life they often reckoned better than their “betters”: communal values over individual possessiveness, work as a means to relish life’s pleasures rather than a means to accumulate.40
Likewise, in this century sociologist Jeff Torlina’s interviews with blue-collar workers found a nearly uniform pride in their work and an alternative status system that often put their own “prestige” above that of white-collar and professional workers.41 Oral histories are full of people such as the coal miner who compared his life favorably to the millionaire CEO of Massey Energy: “I’ll tell you what I do have that he’ll never have and that’s respect and appreciation from the people I live with. And that makes me a hell of a lot richer.”42 And labor historian James Barrett describes his mother: “She was … class conscious in a vague sort of way, full of aphorisms that reflected poorly on rich people: ‘Money comes to money’; ‘If you need something, go to poor people for help.’ ”43
It’s not impossible that these attitudes toward their own and others’ status might sometimes be “compensatory,” attempts to put a positive spin on their own perceived inferiority. But it is nonetheless part of the culture in working-class life, and it is highly suspicious that those who are so sure there’s nothing here but “reactive identities,” not a genuine culture, are themselves class isolates. There ought to be a rule that before social scientists are permitted to speculate on the deep sources of working-class thoughts and feelings, they should have known at least ten working-class people from adolescence into adulthood or have interviewed more than a hundred of them for more than fifteen minutes.
Parochial and Cosmopolitan
Chicago journalist Mike Royko used to tell the story of a Chinese immigrant who established a laundry in the predominately Polish neighborhood where Royko grew up. The Chinese immigrant learned the language of his customers, was well liked, and had a thriving business. After several years, the immigrant laundry owner had to go to City Hall for some business, where he was perplexed to find everybody speaking a foreign language he did not understand. He had learned Polish, the language of the neighborhood, not English.
The story, probably apocryphal, is told and retold to illustrate the parochial nature of Chicago’s immigrant working-class neighborhoods, “urban villages” where some people might spend decades without ever leaving, according to the folklore. But told that way, the story misses many aspects of working-class parochialism. As Jonathan Haidt points out, “The word ‘parochial’ means, literally, concerned with matters of the local parish, rather than the larger world. But as it is commonly used, the word is an insult.”44 Indeed, Google’s dictionary defines parochial as “having a limited or narrow outlook or scope,” which is not necessarily pejorative, but then lists as synonyms “narrow-minded,” “petty,” “illiberal,” “hidebound,” and “intolerant,” among other insulting terms.
Staying within the story, it is worth noting that both the Chinese and the Polish were immigrants, with direct knowledge of two very different cultures in their old and new countries. Though they chose to narrow their lifeworlds in order to have intimate control of their immediate circumstances, they were likely cosmopolitan in a potentially deeper way than middle-class professionals like me who have never left their country except as tourists (often in the company of large groups of other Americans). And as labor historian Jim Barrett has written about his own Chicago neighborhood not far from Royko’s, the street-level racial and ethnic boundaries meant that a child growing up there needed to know about other cultures in order to either avoid or manage them.45 Likewise, it was the rare Chicago neighborhood where most people worked within the neighborhood; working-class men and women most often had to leave to work, and in most working-class jobs there was a wild mix of different ethnicities and races. What’s more, the second generation of immigrants often is bilingual and highly skilled in mediating between the cultures of their parents and those of their new country—again potentially more cosmopolitan than children growing up in ethnically indistinct but white suburbs where almost everybody goes to college after high school.
Still, if we stick with the meaning of the term, more like “localist” or indeed “villager” rather than all those negative synonyms, I think it is right to say that working-class culture is more parochial and middle-class professionalism more cosmopolitan. The working-class strategy of ceding control to gain control seeks to control small and therefore more manageable spaces (niches) together with a relatively small group of people (typically circles of family, friends, neighbors, and workmates). It is a strategy that for the most part cedes the larger world to others but attempts to establish deep, long-lasting relationships as part of a rooted life whereby one can have detailed knowledge of past and present that nurtures an easygoing, if often tangled, social trust. It’s what Michael Ignatieff calls “ordinary virtue”:
Ordinary virtue is … a strategy for making do, for getting on with life, for bracketing larger questions that do not admit of answers. From the ordinary-virtues perspective it is enough to do your job, to give your neighbor a lift when her car breaks down, to loan the renter across the hall your hair dryer or take in her package, to mix in the streets with people from a hundred different lands, to join in your neighbors’ festivals, to make sure your own kids do their homework and do your best to maintain a marriage or relationship through good times and bad.… [T]hose who live by the ordinary virtues seek, to the best of their ability, to reproduce the moral order [immediately] around them, without which their lives would no longer make sense.46
This localistic ordinary virtue has its downsides. As Richard Pipes said of Russians, “The lives of the great majority of Russians are uncommonly personal, which makes them excellent friends and poor citizens.”47 I wouldn’t push this analogy too far, as many working-class Americans are very good citizens, but it is not unusual for them to be politically shrewd, generous, and nuanced in their everyday local worlds while having distorted caricatures of others in national, let alone international, politics. But Ignatieff rightly argues, I think, that latent racism and xenophobia remain latent until they get expanded into larger tribal conflicts. Writing from Bosnia, he says:
Every local battle between faiths, creeds, or races can be fanned into an international fire once someone claims that what is at stake are ultimate questions of global, not simply local, identity.48
[But] as long as it was only “me” and “you,” people could live together, side by side, difference abutting difference, each in its terrain of ritual and certainty, not making claims on the other, living together and side by side, all at once. They came to your christening, you went to their funerals. Respect was shown.… This is the deep logic of ordinary virtue, the tolerance that comes from taking people as they come and taking life one day at a time.49
So, just as the cosmopolitan middle class often assumes, working-class parochialism can be fertile soil for xenophobia of various sorts—“in-turned tribes” or even hate groups—but if Ignatieff is right, this is likely only if that soil is seeded and watered from the outside. Working-class “live and let live” and “it takes all kinds” attitudes are antidotes in local worlds. But when middle-class professionals see themselves as cosmopolitan elites and are intolerant of local loyalties some seeding occurs, and when the spate of synonyms for parochialism get hurled at them—as often happens in various forms of public discourse, not just national politics—defensive resentments often result.
Since the Donald Trump presidency and Brexit shocks and other forms of right-wing populisms, the conflicts and misunderstandings between parochials and cosmopolitans have received some attention in political commentary.50 Though much political discussion focuses on whites with and without bachelor’s degrees, seldom is this divide seen in explicit class terms across race and ethnicity. Putting it in those terms shows that the cultural divide goes deeper than mere electoral politics, where people are very much affected by conditions in their own lives and the policies and personas politicians present. In class terms, it is legitimately suggested that the cosmopolitan middle class has much to offer a working class that needs its horizons expanded, its vision of moral order broadened. The whole history of public education, including higher education, has been a process of exposing young people to nonlocal knowledge and, where funds are available, to experiences their families couldn’t provide. The class-culture clash this often sets up has been well studied in the sociology of education.51 But a complementary process occurs nearly as often, one where students do learn and even like to learn nonlocal knowledge and where long-serving middle-class teachers become embedded in working-class communities. This complementarity unfortunately lessens in higher education, but it is not rare in community colleges or even fourth- and third-tier universities such as the one where I taught. I enjoyed presenting what they called “big picture stuff,” and my working-adult students were often hungry for it, but I also respected their local experiential knowledge, and we worked together to try to reconcile my big picture with their often conflicting local knowledges. In the process they became more cosmopolitan, and over time I became more parochial, more appreciative of and comfortable with the intimacy embedded in my own local knowledge.
In any case, except among the international elite, American cosmopolitanism is only skin deep among standard-issue professionals; the ideological commitment to the descriptor and its string of honorific synonyms—“worldly, well-traveled, cultivated, sophisticated, refined” in Google’s dictionary—is stronger than the way people actually live their lives.
In class terms, parochial and cosmo are results of different cultural emphases—guidelines, pressures, and nudges—that impel different ways of life by encouraging people to either stay engaged in what is immediately before them or distance themselves from the immediate so they can understand and experience a larger world. While both are present in every human life, we middle-class professionals need to understand that each emphasis produces different kinds of knowledge, both of which are valuable in different ways but will inevitably lead to conflicts between us. Envisioning our set of guidelines and pressures as the one right way, the only genuine culture opposed to a deficit or backward culture, makes managing those conflicts and appreciating the potential value in them more difficult.
There is enormous good, I believe, in our professional fostering of cosmopolitanism when it’s not just snobbery. We are the class that is most committed to universal human rights, not just those of our own tribe, and to the impersonal character of institutions of law and bureaucracy because the impersonality of treating everybody the same is more just and fair in the long run. And among the education-communications wing, we are the ones who foster a broader sense of knowledge, vision, and empathy. But it’s not very cosmopolitan if we see our own culture as the only good one, as the one to which everyone should aspire, and believe that everyone should try harder to be like us.
English journalist David Goodhart divides modern Western populations into “people who see the world from Anywhere and people who see it from Somewhere.” As “the exam-passing classes,” Anywheres have “portable achieved identities, based on educational and career success,” whereas Somewheres are “more rooted and usually have ascribed identities … based on group belonging and particular places.” The Somewheres are the much larger group, but the Anywheres dominate in most parts of society, especially culturally.52 Politically, Somewheres are more negative toward free trade, globalization, and immigration, and Anywheres are quick to ascribe backward, racist, and xenophobic motives to those views. The Somewheres don’t want to rule the world, according to Goodhart. They just want their concerns taken into account, to have their voices heard as part of a democratic discourse, and Goodhart sees the twenty-first-century populist revolt as rooted in the fact that Anywheres seem incapable of allowing that. It’s an insightful if incomplete view of current populisms, but I think it is instructive that as an Anywhere liberal himself, Goodhart does not advocate a rigorous reform of Anywhereism but instead simply “a less headstrong Anywhere liberalism.”53
Middle-class professionalism is a good and strong culture that makes a large positive contribution to our society and world, but it does damage when we are headstrong, so certain of our own virtue and preferability. We do have a lot to offer working-class people, from medicine to education to business, but they have something to offer us as well, and even when they don’t, we have a vested interest in their culture being strong and vital enough to suit their circumstances, to foster their agency and pursue their happiness.
One of the ironies of middle-class cosmopolitanism is that in our middle-class lives, especially in our professional lives, there is a lot of unintended homogeneity as professionals. Though we often pride ourselves on our ability to meet, effectively deal with, and befriend people from diverse races, regions, countries, and religions, there is a shared professionalism in our ways of seeing, being, and acting that allows us to accept and enjoy people from diverse places and backgrounds. Especially at professional conferences we can delight in the variety of our colleagues from Nigeria, Germany, and China precisely because we share more among ourselves than we do with people outside the conference. But even in broader middle-class settings, there are professional manners and mores, shared attitudes and perspectives, that we are pretty rigorous in enforcing among ourselves. Often it goes under the moniker of “civility.” As a result, there seems to be a narrower set of personalities and behaviors among us than in most working-class settings. Indeed, we are generally not that good at dealing with class or even occupational differences, such as the way many professionals treat wait staff and other “menials” and the awkwardly different professionalisms in the business and education-communications wings.
The working class, on the other hand, probably values diversity less but actually experiences more of it in their daily lives. In most working-class circles, there is a wild mélange of personalities, including people who are quite limited intellectually alongside stand-up comics and others of great wit, plus a wide range of emotional styles from the steadily mild to volatile hotheads. In middle-class settings, not being smart or being a hothead will exclude you from many activities and conversations, whereas “dumbbells” and hotheads are expected and accepted in working-class ones. Likewise, introverts are common and accepted in a way that they are not among middle-class professionals, who often feel impelled to try to “tear down walls” and “bring people out of their shells.” My observation is that a working-class group where everybody belongs in one way or another is more diverse in personal styles and even manners and mores than in middle-class groupings, especially those whose primary or secondary purpose is networking, not friendship.
What’s more, people in a belonging culture, with its tendency to become an “in-turned tribe,” experience more diversity because they are more awkward with differences in people outside their circle, differences often tied to race, ethnicity, and religion when they are noticeable but also to class in their daily experience. Because they value belonging more, they are more likely to experience others as Other, but they are also less likely to be able to avoid and dismiss them. Just as there are strategies to defer to those with more power and authority, there are ways to deal with others who have different ethnicities and religions, different ways of doing, being, and seeing. Outright hostility is one of these (especially among young men), but it is not the only one. In daily life, for both objective and subjective reasons, working-class parochialism undoubtedly experiences more unavoidable diversity than we middle-class professionals do. And for the most part, though always a potential witch’s brew, they deal with it generously and effectively with what Ignatieff calls ordinary but highly local virtues.
The Uses of Binaries
“There are two kinds of people in the world, and I don’t like either one of them much,” Monty Python actor Eric Idle quipped in his “sortabiography.”54 The joke is funny, because dividing people into two opposite groups is so common a way for human beings to map basic social realities even though we know these kinds of oppositions are too simple. That simplicity is a good part of the explanatory power of conceptual binaries. But if rigidly adopted as labels to define individuals, “to put us all in boxes,” we know such binaries can do harm by nurturing animosities on the most extreme end or simply encouraging avoidance and distance on the soft end. I learned a corollary of this teaching Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes to a group of traditional-aged college students after I had retired as an adult educator. Whereas in teaching working adults there was recognition of some aspects but considerable resistance to others in my list of class characteristics from Jensen, younger students just copied down the list and then started applying it as if it were scientific truth—while also routinely asking what was going to be on the test.
Oppositional binaries should open study and discussion, not close it. If they are insightful, there are all sorts of further analysis, modifications, qualifications, and internal disagreements that should ensue, including empirical studies in the ingenuous ways social scientists have devised in the past several decades. This chapter is simply meant to outline and suggest cultural poles that pull us in different directions based on social class. Many other things—race, gender, sexuality, etc.—matter for people’s experience and how they interpret that experience, but I have been rigorously nonintersectional in order to draw attention to broad class misunderstandings that have consequences for how we live, including but not limited to what is still allowed of democratic politics within our current economic oligarchy.
We’d need a lot of boxes if we were to classify each individual, so many that it may not be worth the effort. I have suggested additional binaries within each class—hard living and settled living in the working class and the business and education-communications wings of the professional middle class as well as a distinction between elite and standard-issue middle-class professionals—but so many more distinctions would have to made to allow us to properly classify individuals. I’m not interested in labeling everybody one by one. But I do hope that people will recognize parts of themselves in my notion of class divisions within free wage labor and will recognize how we all experience the human tensions between belonging and becoming and being and doing but with different guidelines and pressures within the culture that has affected us most.
And as I demonstrated in chapter 5, it is not always easy to determine which culture or cultures have affected us most. Jean Boucher has explored the difference between mono-class people and class hybrids, finding that growing groups of hybrids differ substantially from one another.55 There are class crossovers like me, but there are also people who maintain their class position and identity while being highly influenced by the culture of the other class. This commonly happens among college professors of middle-class origin who end up teaching at universities that are primarily working class. It also happens among labor union staff who rise from the ranks of their union. But even people who have experienced the same class trajectory together, like Judie and I, retain and embrace different parts of the two cultures while sharing other parts both intentionally and unintentionally.
As in other forms of diversity, cross-class experience expands our horizons and our understanding of the range of what is lived as proper, normal, or natural in human life. But there is also utility and value in living one and only one culture to the full, experiencing little or no opposition that might undermine your conscious dedication or barely conscious commitment. I and my family of origin benefited from living in a steel town where we had little direct interaction with people of other classes. Protected by a powerful union during the Glorious Thirty, we could elaborate our way of life on our own without much interference. Likewise, I fancy that upper-middle-class young people who go to high school and college almost exclusively with people from their own social class have advantages for achieving and becoming precisely because of the purity of their local culture and how it meshes so well with the official national culture. The problem is that we must live with one another in a society that officially and genuinely prizes democracy and democratic discourse. As the dominant culture that influences all others, middle-class professionals—especially those of us in the education-communications wing—must foster mutual understanding across class divides. I believe that we can most effectively do that by correcting our own class misunderstandings and stepping back from our jumped-to conclusions and assumptions about people and cultures that operate with different rules, goals, and aspirations.
My final three chapters will not be about more categorical differences in the class cultures but instead will explore certain aspects of working-class life and culture that middle-class scholars have neglected and/or misunderstood, many of which have filtered into broader professional misconceptions and devaluations.