Class Labels

Chalice lighting

This is a special place.
A place where we commit to looking past divisions ,
Looking past differences,
Looking past biases,
Looking past the labels we wear.
Seeing one another for who we are is hard.
It takes effort,
It takes determination,
It calls us to put aside the quick judgements that come naturally.
By the light of this flame
Let us see what is truest and best about one another.
Let us have the ability to look past exteriors.
Let us have vision unclouded by bias,
Vision enlivened by understanding and sustained by love.

Reading: Middle-Class Blues, by Dennis O'Driscoll

He has everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
A velvet three-piece suite.
A metallic-silver car.
A mahogany cocktail cabinet.
A rugby trophy.
A remote-controlled music centre.
A set of golf clubs under the hallstand.
A fair-haired daughter learning to walk.
What he is afraid of most
and what keeps him tossing some nights
on the electric underblanket,
listening to the antique clock
clicking with disapproval from the landing,
are the stories that begin:
He had everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
Then one day.

Reading: Barbara Ehrenreich, excerpt from ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America’

There seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality. Corporate decision makers, and even some two-bit entrepreneurs like my boss at The Maids, occupy an economic position miles above that of the underpaid people whose labor they depend on. For reasons that have more to do with class — and often racial — prejudice than with actual experience, they tend to fear and distrust the category of people from which they recruit their workers. Hence the perceived need for repressive management and intrusive measures like drug and personality testing. But these things cost money — $20,000 or more a year for a manager, $100 a pop for a drug test, and so on — and the high cost of repression results in ever more pressure to hold wages down. The larger society seems to be caught up in a similar cycle: cutting public services for the poor, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the 'social wage,' while investing ever more heavily in prisons and cops. And in the larger society, too, the cost of repression becomes another factor weighing against the expansion or restoration of needed services. It is a tragic cycle, condemning us to ever deeper inequality, and in the long run, almost no one benefits but the agents of repression themselves.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

Our current theme is labels - not the kind in our clothing - although those probably could fit interestingly into our exploration. The labels we’re talking about are the ones that are applied to people. Whether we choose our labels or have them foisted upon us or whether we initially resist and then embrace them - these labels provide a short-hand for what kind of person we are. They tell some people you’re OK and tell others to stay away. They can improve your chances of success and they can lessen your opportunities.

What is also almost always true is that labels don’t actually fit very well. Labels are a gross oversimplification of who people are. It’s like slapping a label that says ‘chocolate’ on a box in the supermarket. Is it white, milk, or dark? Is it plain or does it have other things added in? What shape is it? What’s the quality? Just so, black or gay or white or transgender or disabled or immigrant or Jew or Christian give only a very simplistic understanding of who a person really is.

It is also crucial to remember that labels confine us. Because of the signalling power they carry and their tendency to determine where we fit socially - there are always pressures to conform more and more to the stereotype inherent in that label. If you are going to be labelled a Goth, then you will fit better with your Goth community as you fit the classic Goth look. Of course, you can try to break free, but the punk and emo and hip-hop circles are not going to be too welcoming to a semi-Goth, so shifting labels is wrenching and may demand that you make yourself fit a new stereotype.

Labels have an impact on many different aspects of our lives. We will talk about sexual orientation and gender identity. We will talk about religious identity, disability, and ethnicity. Today, I chose to bring up something very difficult - and that is social class. Class is such a challenging topic that we don’t really talk about it much in any serious way. It’s awkward in so many ways. To some extent, we think it shouldn’t exist at all and want to magic it away by ignoring it.

In another sense, we’re embarrassed because - not only is class present and quite a big deal - the truth is that most of us are classist to some extent. That is, we make quick judgements about people based on what we ascertain to be their class affiliation. It can be how they talk, how they dress, how they walk, what they eat, the kind of entertainment they enjoy, and many other little things that fit into a class stereotype.

Class is defined simplistically as how society is stratified - the ways in which people can be grouped according to relative power, influence, affluence, education, and all the other attributes that help us to be able to achieve what is generally understood as success. Class is not easily defined and individual classes themselves are not so clear at all. Is your class defined by how much money you have? Is it defined by how much money you earn? By your education? By your connections? By your cultural orientation?

In 2013, a study concluded that the UK is best described as having seven classes that vary depending on their relative economic, social, and cultural capital. In some ways, the very fact that class seems at times so nebulous and so multifactorial can make us wonder if it’s such a big deal after all. Maybe it no longer matters now that we can not be so simply defined?

But this suspicion would be dead wrong. The moment a child is conceived, its life opportunities are already tremendously constrained by the class of its parents. Simply because of this complex thing we might call class, that new life will be much more or less likely to get a good education, much more or less likely to get in trouble with the law, much more or less likely to own a home, and much more or less likely to have certain kinds of jobs. It is not simply a matter or how the parents themselves influence the new life but all of the ways in which their power, connections, perspectives, geography and a myriad of other factors will conspire to limit or expand the opportunities of that child throughout their lives.

In this radically-inclusive community, we - like all of our society - remain biased when it comes to class. In another congregation, I remember all too clearly one day when a newcomer arrived. I saw another member of the congregation talking to this person and - as someone very committed to welcoming new people - I wanted to help make this person comfortable. On my way to the newcomer, I stopped quickly by the person who had been talking to him to get a bit more information. This person said to me ‘Don’t bother. He’s a plumber. He won’t stay.’

The repercussions of that simple statement are enormous. Plumber equals working class. Not only did this person automatically make the assumption that a plumber couldn’t possibly be interested in the congregation, it was also clear that they knew this newcomer wouldn’t really be welcome. And it didn’t seem to matter very much to this established member that such person would not be able to find a home there. Job was an instant indicator of class and class provided a clear, infallible, determination of who the person was, what they were like, and their worth as a human being.

Such a determination and judgement happened so quickly and so seemingly without concern. This is the power of class and of other labels to cause us to make quick and very far-reaching determinations about people every day. If I had been able to close my mouth and settle my shock enough to challenge the conclusion about the plumber, I’m sure that this decent person would say - ‘Oh, I’m not classist. It’s just they’re different from us. We’re not better, just different. I just know he wouldn’t like it here.’

And this might have even been a step in the right direction despite how exclusionary the conclusion was and the actions arising from it. Class determination is normally filled with value judgements. Maybe a few of these will be familiar? Working class people have unsophisticated tastes. Middle-class people are more progressive. Working class people are not as intelligent. Middle-class people are more generous. Working class people beat their children. Working class people are not culturally adventurous. Middle-class people are stiff and emotionally shut down. Working class people worry less.

I’m sure we could come up with thousands of such judgements that depict the sort of stereotypes we draw about others. Some would have some truth about some people. None would have truth about every member of every group. All, however, are in the backs of our minds and fuel an instant judgement about the people we encounter. It is through these daily judgements that we determine who we ought to talk with and avoid, who we should hire, what shop to visit, what street to walk down, who to befriend, who to marry, and who we will welcome into our lives.

It is terrible that class determines so much about the future possibilities of each newborn infant. It is deeply confounding that the long tendrils of this thing we call class reach into every aspect of how we see one another and how we interact. Remembering that labels not only describe us but shape us, we know that we will automatically be driven to fit our class labels better and better. As a child, will you emulate the speech patterns of your posh or your working class schoolmates? How will you want to dress? What tastes in music and other entertainment will you tend towards? Will educational attainment be seen as a source of stature or as uncool? It is through the interaction of all the decision like these and their interaction between how society then sees and judges those characteristics that very quickly narrows the initially vast potential of every child.

There is no quick solution to the limiting and life-destroying aspects of class bias. It is too deeply entwined in our society and in our own thinking. And yet, each of us, and a community like this one, has an opportunity to do something. It begins simply enough by noticing our first impressions. Our built-in fast-deciding mental systems are preloaded with all kinds of biases and those will emerge in any new situation. They will appear and label and cause us - if we allow it - to dismiss whole swathes of humanity.

But this instant judgement is not all we are. We each have slower, more determined, more value-based ways of thinking - ways that are more aligned with who we really want to be and the world we really want to live in. And so, the simplest thing we can do is to judge slowly. Judge thoughtfully. Allow the depth of each person to emerge and overcome the instantaneous label-driven judgement.

Look beyond the labels. You might just change lives for the better - including the richness of your own.

Closing Words

The world moves fast and life demands rapid decisions.
Instant judgements.
Quick sorting into simple categories.
We owe it to ourselves to look beyond speed.
To see beyond the automatic judgements of our mind.
Let us turn to the slower considerations of our hearts,
The wisdom of understanding,
The beauty of depth,
The sweet pain of compassion,
And the healing, connecting, joy of love.