Thursday, 15 March 2012
OPINION: Piotr Żuk-- On Class Discrimination
Identical social phenomena are often lablled with different names. It all depends who they are associated with. The language used everyday in the media, government announcements and casual conversation is full of prejudices and stereotypes. Whenever we hear about poor neighbourhoods in the media, the same connotations appear-- dysfunctional communtites inhabited by alcoholics and broken families where one should think twice about venturing into at night. According to capitalist morality and market culture, poverty itself has become a pathology.
The smiling faces we see in countless adverts are usually middle-class faces. They are the heroes of our time. They act as role models for the rest of society, most of whom aspire to be like them. They display the greatest virtues one can have in our contemporary capitalist society-- flexibility, entrepreneurship, assertiveness, creativity, innovation and other traits from the Newspeak dictionary.
The same behaviour can carry a completley different label, and can be judged much less positively, depending on its class context. If members of the lower orders are not in a stable marriage then we hear of broken homes and sexual promiscuity. In the case of the middle and upper classes we hear of free and open relationships with 'partners'.
An educated, urban, middle-class woman without a husband or stable 'partner' is simply 'single'. Her working-class equivalent is likely to be labelled an 'old spinster'.
A famous actor, journalist or singer who has homosexual tendencies is a cosmopolitan 'gay'. A working class or unemployed homosexual is just a common 'faggot'. The word 'gay' has come to signify not only sexual orientation but also lifestyle and social status. Working-class homoexuals do not spend time in trendy, big-city clubs, nor do they buy designer clothes. They cannot achieve the status of a 'gay' and so they remain lowly 'faggots'.
When a middle-class teenager smashes a shop window, it is a manifestation of growing pains which needs to be analysed and rationalised-- perhaps he suffers from ADHD? Perhaps he had a bad day at school? When a teenager from a poor family smashes a shop window then it merely illustrates his pathological background and the problematic upbringing which, 'obviously', are omnipresent in his social sphere.
The full weight of the law comes down on the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods, who have an almost genetic predispostion to commit crime. However, actions which cause more damage, and are carried out on a much larger scale, are not even considered as crimes. In this way, one person is labelled a thief and criminal whilst another is hailed as a creative entrepreneur who has managed to find a loophole in the law. Large-scale fraud becomes so abstract that there are no laws on the books which can stop them. The perpetrators enjoy thier status as respected businessmen.
Slavoj Zizek is right when he says that the stigma of class also means a lot in feminist circles. Watching and listening to a representative of Poland's Women's Congress such as Henryka Bochniarz, one can agree with Zizek's opinion that politically active feminism "can function as an ideological tool for the upper middle-classes who wish to confirm thier superiority to the 'patriarchal and intolerant' lower orders". On one hand we have educated feminist activists with high status and income and on the other hand we have submissive, feeble-minded women from the working class. In the media it is very hard to find a working-class, non-graduate woman who calls herself a feminist. In Poland the term 'feminist' is reserved for independent, well-educated women from large cities, many of whom schooled in the academic sphere of 'gender studies'.
For these reasons, class tensions in Poland are often articulated by hostility to different cultural and identity groups, as David Ost has written. The enemy is not a capitalist but rather a German, a Jew, a feminist or a middle-class homosexual. Feminists and gays take flak from 2 directions: in a generally conservative society they face hostility due to their beliefs and sexuality but they also face hostility from the poorer sections of society as they are seen as symbols of the rich and powerful classes.
Although the language of class warfare is no longer to be found in either the Polish media or Polish political debate, our society is full of class prejudice. Classism is a cultural form of racism in which the hostility is not aimed towards those of different races but those of different social class. In Poland we have anti-semitism without Jews, racism without ethnic minorities and hidden classism without the language of class in public debate. This does not mean that we live in a classless society, far from it: class tensions and prejudices affect us all, all day, every day.
Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine nr.11 (637) 18/03/12