Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Not Really About Harry Potter

Went to Borders Books Friday night for the great unveiling of the 7th Harry Potter book. It was a madhouse. But since this is an upper-middle-class region of the Bay Area, it was controlled madness – people were actually pretty orderly and well-behaved.

I assume you want to argue about the apparent class-ism in the last sentence, so in a fit of prolepsis, let's go:

Understanding that generalizations are seldom useful and often hurtful when applied to individuals, let me say that my experience is this: speaking in generalities, people with a little more money are more tightly bound by conventions of polite public behavior than those with less money.

This might be why:

1) the more money you have, the more you have invested in the status quo, including conventional standards of social etiquette.

In fact, I don’t see how it could fail to be this way.

In the first place, we will support and defend a system that works for us. Consider petty crime: as the saying goes “An empty stomach is a poor political advisor.” I’m not saying that I *know* that poor people commit more petty crime than rich people; but I’m at a loss to explain why they wouldn’t.
I feel frustrated when people who are well off pretend that the reason *they* would never steal is because they’re so enlightened and morally superior. It’s all very nice and convenient and self-serving to believe that, but the fact is that the risk/reward quotient for theft (for example) is dramatically different for poor people than it is for rich people.
A lot of people were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

2) But back to manners: as the most basic challenges of life (food, shelter, etc) are met, humans have to invent other things to care about, to make their lives matter, and to separate themselves from the hoi-polloi. So you have folks getting their shorts all balled up about wearing white after labor day, or using the wrong fork; that kind of nonsense is a luxury not everyone has time to care about. This trend can extend to lots areas having to do with manners/etiquette.

3) For some folks, life is one long struggle and they’re in battle mode from the moment they wake up. If your home life, neighborhood situation, etc dictate that you have to fight to get your needs met, you won’t take the same amt of time worrying about politeness and order as someone might who’s more privileged – whose basic needs of life are met with less effort.

So the result is that (in my experience) more well-off folks tend to be more “orderly” and a little more reticent about expressing their feelings frankly than less well-off folks are. You might call it politeness vs. rudeness, or you might call it insincere pretense vs keeping it real. I can just say this: I’ve seen higher-income folks “telling it like it is” (ie, arguing, being loud/pushy, etc), but I’ve seen even more lower-income folks doing it.

Rich folks may screw people out of their pensions, destroy lives, treat their domestic help like crap, or lock their insane grandmother in the attic, but when it comes to public behaviour, you’re still less likely to see a fistfight at the opera than you might at a NASCAR event or an inner-city basketball game.

In addition: all else being equal, people who “don’t know how to act” will tend to be less successful than those who understand how to get along well with others. IOW, being poor may not make you an ***hole, but being an ***hole will tend to make you poor. This means that – again, all else being equal – exceptionally rude people will tend to drift down in income level, coming to rest with lots of normal people who are perfectly polite, but just happen not to have money.

This is not to say that one standard of public discourse is intrinsically “better” than another – any approach is most reasonably measured vis-à-vis its effectiveness in helping an individual operate in his/her environment.

Neither does it imply that people with less money have less class (in the sense of “high quality or integrity”) or are necessarily less considerate of their fellow human beings. On the contrary, one might argue that they would be *more* considerate, since a less well-off person might be more attuned to how much we all depend on one another. My personal feeling is that the rich are more isolated, less concerned for their neighbors, but they use better manners while ignoring them.

Nonetheless, I can picture my fellow egalitarians frothing at the mouth as they read this. This is because I have presumed to suggest that something most consider a Good (in this case, “politeness”) is not somehow magically spread equally among all income levels. We want to believe that personal choice alone dictates how “good” (ie, honest, kind, compassionate, industrious, whatever) we are – that context is NOT formative, or at least, that our environment only affects us in ways that have no impact on things we consider to be “qualities”. This is stupid thinking, and you’re lucky I’m here to help you with it.
Consider: we accept that “power corrupts…”; in fact, “rich people are immoral” has lots of takers. I think we should be able to take on the idea that *all* context tends to inform behavior – and that reasonably-well-off Sunnyvale-ians might be more orderly than people elsewhere – without sliding down the slippery slope into “Poor people are bad people.”

You’re welcome.

10 Comments:

At Tue Jul 24, 08:56:00 PM PDT, Blogger Extrem4 said...

So does that mean Harry dies?

 
At Wed Jul 25, 07:02:00 PM PDT, Blogger Erik said...

solid post my friend--an enjoyable read. although personally, i don't care how much money you have. i'm coming for the harry potter, i'm coming at you hard and fast, and for the slow there is no recompense.

 
At Thu Jul 26, 10:09:00 AM PDT, Blogger unca said...

“The more money you have, the more you have invested in the status quo, including conventional standards of social etiquette. In fact, I don’t see how it could fail to be this way.”

I’m not sure I would agree with this. In fact there are probably better correlates of politeness than income level, including education level (regardless of income), church attendance (again, regardless of income), regional culture (to name a few).

“For some folks, life is one long struggle and they’re in battle mode from the moment they wake up. If your home life, neighborhood situation, etc dictate that you have to fight to get your needs met, you won’t take the same amt of time worrying about politeness and order as someone might who’s more privileged – whose basic needs of life are met with less effort.”

I agree with this up to a point—if it’s hardscrabble everyday then you’re more likely to forget the courtesies. But you seem to imply that the scale of “niceness” continues to correlate on up the money ladder (i.e., those with upper-middle class incomes are more polite than those with middle class incomes—people for whom life is certainly not “one long struggle.”) How far up the hierarchy of needs do you need to go before your impolite behavior can no longer be explained?

The income demographics of NASCAR fans are pretty much the same as the rest of the population so you should either: 1) find another reason for their fighting –one having nothing to do with income (alcohol?) or 2) entertain the idea that they don’t argue any more than anybody else.

You seem to bounce around with your definition of niceness, politeness, goodness, empathy, etc. In one paragraph you suggest that the “goodness” of lower-income groups is something independent of “politeness” ---“would be *more* considerate, since a less well-off person might be more attuned to how much we all depend on one another.” Yet in the next paragraph you seem to lump politeness back into “goodness” again: “This is because I have presumed to suggest that something most consider a Good (in this case, “politeness”) is not somehow magically spread equally among all income levels.” I might add that the “impoliteness” of failing to use the correct fork and picking a fight over a Harry Potter book differ in “kind” more than degree. We need to define our terms here.

 
At Thu Jul 26, 03:32:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

Good comments.
Unca:
there are probably better correlates of politeness than income level, including education level (regardless of income), church attendance (again, regardless of income), regional culture (to name a few).

Absolutely. I guess there's a measure of "all else being equal" in what I'm trying to say, and more importantly, I perceive a general correlation between income level and [education level & other general cultural training]. I'm trying to say that investment in the status quo breeds stability and more reluctance to rock the boat.

How far up the hierarchy of needs do you need to go before your impolite behavior can no longer be explained?
I didn't mean to sound like rich people aren't rude -- ***holes abound at all income levels.

NASCAR: I just threw that in because in my prejudice I perceive race fans as less intelligent and less cultured than others. And to avoid the appearance of racism by just listing 'inner city basketball'.

You seem to bounce around with your definition of niceness, politeness, goodness, empathy, etc.

My position is that
a) society in general perceives "politeness" as a Good, which is why my hypothesis would annoy because it sounds like "poor people are not as good".
b) if, as i posit, politeness level is *sometimes* *partially* a function of income level, that's not the same as saying a person is better/worse than another person since there are different ideas of what "good" is, and seldom if ever is the def'n as simple as one's strenght in any one attribute.


...failing to use the correct fork and picking a fight over a Harry Potter book differ in “kind” more than degree...

Don't necessarily disagree. I'm not saying they're the same, just saying that I make a connection between those two things and perhaps informs the question of whether income plays a part in "politeness".

 
At Thu Jul 26, 05:50:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Something that has been somewhat overlooked here is what I consider the most influential factors in being polite and that is it largely depends on your moral values. Most polite people come from polite families. In my experiences it really has nothing to do with the amount of money or wealth you have.

If the poorest of the poor families teach these values to their children and lead by example chances are their children will be polite because there are rewards in life for being polite. If the richest of the rich raise their children without teaching respect or personal responsibility chances are they will have spoiled bratty impolite kids.

BRYAN SAID “An empty stomach is a poor political advisor.” I’m not saying that I *know* that poor people commit more petty crime than rich people; but I’m at a loss to explain why they wouldn’t.

I don’t think that even a small percentage of crime that is committed in the US is due to an empty stomach. We are not living during the depression and we don’t live in a 3rd world country.

BRYAN SAID “Neighborhood situation, etc dictate that you have to fight to get your needs met, you won’t take the same amt of time worrying about politeness and order as someone might who’s more privileged – whose basic needs of life are met with less effort.

Again this comes down to personal responsibility instead of making an excuse why some people are not polite.

Could it be argued that years ago politeness and being polite WAS a basic need regardless of weather you were rich or poor?

 
At Thu Jul 26, 11:13:00 PM PDT, Blogger jay aitch said...

Boy, that 'blogball' is an astute fellow! Amen!

 
At Fri Jul 27, 01:24:00 PM PDT, Blogger unca said...

We'd probably all agree that moral values inform our niceness more than any other factor and that this moral instruction comes from families both rich and poor. I think Brian (who would also agree)was trying to find a correlation between an easily identifiable demographic statistic and politeness--or to put it another way, a correlation between which families are more likely to teach politeness. But, you're right--the teaching itself is the source of the politeness. I think you're agreeing with me about the poverty/empty stomach thing. That's exactly the point I was trying to make. Hunger (such as during a depression or in the 3rd world, as you say) may very well breed impoliteness but having to drive a used Toyota instead of a BMW shouldn't make much of a difference.

 
At Fri Jul 27, 04:29:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

UNCA Said : I think Brian (who would also agree)was trying to find a correlation between an easily identifiable demographic statistic and politeness--or to put it another way, a correlation between which families are more likely to teach politeness.

My point was if there is a correlation there shouldn’t be.

BRYAN SAYS:
My position is that
a) society in general perceives "politeness" as a Good, which is why my hypothesis would annoy because it sounds like "poor people are not as good".

Sorry but this just strikes me as a little condescending?
Wouldn’t you be a little insulted if you and your children happened to be poor and people made special considerations for your kids and were more understanding if they didn’t act as polite as some other kids?

Poor people ARE part of society in general. If they weren’t it wouldn’t be called a society. Does this mean that poor people are entitled to be not as polite and as soon as they make a lot of money they will reform to a different brand of politeness? Common decency is common decency and it doesn’t cost any more money to offer.

If we as a “society in general” excuse accountability to a certain sector of people because of their bank account what do you think will happen eventually? Could this be what Bryan is experiencing?

 
At Mon Jul 30, 06:16:00 AM PDT, Blogger unca said...

Blogball writes: Sorry but this just strikes me as a little condescending?
Wouldn’t you be a little insulted if you and your children happened to be poor and people made special considerations for your kids and were more understanding if they didn’t act as polite as some other kids?
Yes, definitely. This is one of the things that bothered me about the "Rosanne" show that aired a few years ago. The idea was that since this was a "working-class" family (of low to moderate income) the household members were simply expected to behave in a sometimes uncivilized manner toward one another, taking their cues from their repulsive and vulgarian mother. I thought the program was offensive.

 
At Mon Jul 30, 01:29:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Good point Unca about Rosanne. I found that show a little depressing too.

Hollywood also stereotypes the rich too as snobby self serving, selfish, rude people.

This was my point to begin with. Both rich and poor have their own share of rude and impolite people.

Bryan’s post made it sound (to me anyway) as if poor people might not care the same as rich people about politeness as if rich people invented polteness.

Let’s say the poor people are downtown and the upper middle to rich people are uptown. If you ask the downtown people who is more impolite I would be willing to bet they would overwhelmingly say the uptown people. Whether this is true or not is not the point. The point is there is pride and a recognized value on both sides to the importance of being polite.

Just a side note: How polite would the people in uptown book store be if all of the downtown people decided to buy the new Harry Potter book at their uptown bookstore? (Or vise versa) Just something to think about.

It would also be interesting to talk to people that went from rags to riches and riches to rags and ask them the question. “Who is more polite?”

Just betting again but I have a feeling they would say “its all the same out there”

 

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