Monday, 14 June 2010

Is Reflection a Class Issue?



I've recently been involved in an online discussion on James Atherton's “Recent Reflection” blog (all relevant links below). The exchange began as a response to a video of Sir Ken Robinson (talking rather hyperbolically about the need for a “revolution” in education) posted on TED.com. The responses very quickly polarised between two differing philosophical viewpoints which might be roughly characterised as a contrast between British pragmatic empiricism and the American Dream. As the debate drifted ever closer to the issue of class, I was reminded of the famous comedy sketch by the two Ronnies and John Cleese which plays upon representations of British class divisions. I looked the sketch up on YouTube and as I watched it I was struck by something said by the working class character, played by Ronnie Corbett: “… though I'm poor, I'm industrious honest and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them, but I don't.”

Since we can't really expect a comedy sketch to explain itself we need to look elsewhere to be able to tease out what's going on here. The remark demands a little, dare I say, reflection.

The first part of the statement is a clear case of what we could call a self-representation; a self-image which describes the qualities which this character values in himself and feels others might value in him also. Interestingly, as a description, it's in marked contrast to those given by the other two characters. He describes himself through qualities which anybody would be proud to say about themselves; he describes himself in ways which have very little to do with his social status as such and he describes himself in ways which actually say only two distinct things: he works hard and he's worthy of other peoples' trust. This begs a question about how he has arrived at these representations of himself? Is this self-image something which is self generated or is it something which has been adopted? Whilst the other two characters describe things about themselves which other people might find distasteful or problematic in some way (and are certainly social constructions too), this character only describes things about himself that the other two would wish to be the case. His self-image conforms exactly to what the other two would have him be. He's a mirror of their idea of the underclass and he is a mirror which shows not the slightest threat nor subversive inclination - even the inclination to look down on them ie: to adopt their repugnant supercilious attitude.

Class society in the UK has changed a great deal since 1966 when this comedy sketch was first broadcast. Thatcher's government presided over an unprecedented fragmentation of the working class, but despite claims of the demise of class society in the UK, the underclass is still a very tangible reality.

I'm currently reading (more like skimming through really) Pierre Bourdieu's book “Distinction” in which he uses the term “habitus” to describe how different social classes distinguish and express their values through their differing tastes. It occurs to me that the very act of critical reflection itself is often seen as being a bourgeois pretension; an elitist nonsense like so many other abstract intellectual pursuits - as Isaiah Berlin is reputed to have said: the British have never had an Intelligentsia.

We often think of critical reflection as freely available, unlimited, and unencumbered, since it can be carried out in the relative comfort one's own mind with no further requirements than a lack of physical discomfort or distraction. But, looked at from this new perspective, it becomes clear that critical reflection is something which is frequently avoided or devalued amongst the very people who, arguably, could benefit from it most. Anti intellectualism may not be exclusive to any particular social class but it undoubtedly benefits some social strata much more than others. It suits them very well because it disempowers the people who might rise against them in a legitimate struggle for emancipation.

As I said in my comments on the Recent Reflection blog discussion:
"People who have the privilege of better education, more money and more time are in the position of being able to “reflect” and make choices about their future. Reflection doesn't come for free - it has to be cultivated and given space to develop. Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do, let alone HOW, and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus."
I wrote the above as a response to the following statement:
"It is absolutely a societal responsibility to the extent possible to create genuine opportunities for everyone."
Opportunities are practically meaningless without the means to take advantage of them. A lottery ticket is an opportunity. We could argue over whether it's a "genuine" one or not, but the fact remains that providing access to opportunities is simply not enough. The "genuine" things that people really need are help, support and encouragement to participate in society at all levels, including the intellectual. If my speculations about reflection are in any way correct, then what we need far more than opportunities is a transformation in the way that people from all social strata view and apply critical, reflective and intellectual thought. Many would argue that this starts with education and yes, this is certainly a major contributor but it also starts much deeper than this, in the very attitudes that society fosters and perpetuates in all its citizens and this is a significantly bigger challenge.

References:
Context of the original discussion here (beware, it's long!).
Video of Sir Ken Robinson on TED.com here
Habitus in Sociology here

6 comments:

James A said...

Jim, you said in response to the comments on my blog, as you quote above;

"Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do, let alone HOW, and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus."

Indeed, it is effectively a condition of reflection that one be able to distance oneself from a situation. Reading your comments, I was vividly reminded of undertaking community work in Moss Side, Manchester, in the early '70s. (I was very bad at it.) A group of idealistic Christian graduates bought houses in the area and lived there. Eventually, the tide of redevelopment swept the old streets away, our house was compulsorily purchased, and we moved on. But I remember clearly, discussing with a "real" resident how effective our contribution had been:

"Don't get me wrong," he said, "we do appreciate what you have been trying to do, and the fact that you came to live here. But don't think that you know what it is really like to live here, because you did so by CHOICE. We haven't got a choice."

If I were in that position, I can understand that I would simply rather not think about it...

Seán said...

Didn't Sir Jarvis of Cocker say it best? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ainyK6fXku0&feature=related

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi James and Sean,

Thanks for your comments. I'm reminded of something Susan Sontag wrote in her book "On Photography":
"Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.
Gazing on other people's reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal."

J. Hamlyn said...

Interestingly, yesterday I was sent an email asking for my support for the "climate 9" - a group of climate change activists charged with breach of the peace for stopping carbon emissions by closing Aberdeen airport back in March 2009. They quote Chomsky:

"Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the "responsibility of people," given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy."
http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19670223.htm

Seán said...

Isn't it sad then that most liberal intellectuals mostly represent only their own narrow idealogical and class interests, and all too often themselves distort and misrepresent the truth entirely in their muddle-headed post-modernist way far more than any commercially or political entity would dare.

For example, the significance of the contribution of airports to climate change is far from proven, and this bunch of muppets closed the airport for a total of 20 minutes. Their actions did not reduce climate change as much as if they hadn't travelled to the airport at all. They are in fact uninterested in climate change as such, being an amalgam of ideologues quoted as saying "Capitalism is the cause of the problem, climate change is just a symptom", and NIMBYs. They could hardly be more narrowly self-interested, ill-informed self publicists.

Middle class students waiting for the revolution until they leave to join daddy's firm) and the self-interested bleating of people who want to maximise the value of their houses. Noble stuff indeed!

J. Hamlyn said...

"In England … education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and would probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square."
Oscar Wilde

Post a Comment