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.”