Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Rules of the Game

In George Lakey's workshop on Quakers & Social Class we play a game that very roughly estimates the social class structure in the United States. There, the rules and goals are set out before the participants at the beginning. I've participated in this game once, led it twice, and observed it once, and I've noticed this one thing about it the game:

Lots of Quakers do things that break the rules, but no one (save me) wanted to change the rules.

Yes, my sample size is small. But I was surprised that starting a coop or creating a collective, or trying individually to play by different rules didn't change anything at all about the game or its rules.

When I played, at the point at which the power rested in the hands of a few, I blocked the door to keep them from going out to make the decisions on how the game ends. I didn't understand why their Quaker value of equality wasn't kicking in, didn't understand why they just accepted the rules as they'd been given to us.

At the time, I was immersed in the experience and couldn't be this articulate about it. I just had strong feelings of anger and hurt and confusion because I couldn't square what we say we believe in as a people of faith, and our obedience to a random set of rules.

I still can't square my experience of the game with our stated testimony of equality.

It's a poker chip trading game called Star Power with three simple rules.

1. The goal is to get as many points as possible.
2. You must be shaking hands until you've agreed on a trade.
3. All trades must be unequal.

At the end of three rounds, the sub-group with the most points gets to go outside the room to decide what happens next, how the game should end. When I played the game, I tried to convince people to change the rules, but few if any seemed to want the same.

My observations about how I've seen Quakers engage with this game matters to me because the game is an approximation of the social class structure in the U.S. If our instincts don't lead us to try to change the rules in this game, we won't be led to change the rules in our society that support and perpetuate an oppressive classist system.

I still want to change social class rules because as Quakers, if we believe in equality, we not only should break the rules in our own lives, we should be trying to change the rules. We like to think of ourselves as rule changers. Unfortunately, we're only upsetting the power structure sometimes. I can't honestly think of any rule changing behavior right now (though I can think of social class rule breaking folks).

I'm not changing the rules either. But I thought I could start here, in this little blog, by making social class rules explicit, especially among Friends. I'll start with this rule, which I am breaking among Friends:

Do not try to inhabit a role outside of your social class

I went to college in 2004, at 37 years old, at a four-year school that is primarily for working class people. There, both instructors and other students saw my leadership capacity; they and I nurtured my gifts. In the years I spent among Friends though, this capacity of me was never seen, acknowledged or nurtured. This is because people like me, who grew up working class, and people who grew up poor, are not supposed to act like managers, to be leaders.

The acts of writing this blog and giving workshops on social class is breaking this rule.

Being an expert, a teacher, is hard to do at times. I hear in my head, "Who do you think you are? What do you know? They're the ones with the fancy degrees. They're the ones whose parents read to them. They're the ones who were groomed to be standing up here, telling you some truth about the world. You're supposed to be sitting, learning from them."

Early in the week at Gathering, our suite-mate who also grew up working class described reaching for something more than she was expected to do feels like reaching through a heavy, wet blanket. This feels true to me.

Every time a person living in poverty (not situational poverty, or chosen poverty) strives for a union job, every time a working class person reaches for the middle class by going to college, we're breaking this rule.

So how are you breaking social class rules? How are you trying to change the rules of the game? What is your meeting doing to change the rules as well as break them? Does God want Quakers to support this classist system?


Su Penn said...

Jeanne, your final paragraph has wonderful queries. The first one: How am I breaking social class rules? is very thought-provoking for me as someone who grew up middle-class, with college assumed and paid for by my parents, and who is still affluent.

David and I break rules by living in a smaller house than we probably could afford, and by choosing old, used furniture because we don't want to have to protect things from pets and kids. But being boho-affluent doesn't exactly challenge the status quo in any meaningful way, does it? It makes us like the person in the trading game who chooses not to pursue the goal of getting as many chips as possible but doesn't challenge the rule that that is the game's goal--you can choose to not try to win the game without doing a thing to challenge the game's hegemony.

My meeting is not united in perceiving class issues as a problem in Quakerism. Your last question--what does God want of us?--is the one I'm wrestling with. If I had even a glimmer of an answer, I could be a more effective voice in my meeting.

Martin Kelley said...

But Jeanne, the rules *have* been broken. "The meek shall inherit the earth," "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God," "give unto Caesar what is his," etc., etc. That's the Good News we've inherited. The gospels are a repudiation of worldly measures of power or status. I know of other Friends in similarly straightened circumstances, many of them bloggers.

Next time maybe you could try giving all your money away in the very first round of the game and spend the rest of it witnessing to the trickery and brinksmanship around you. That might not change the rules but it sure would make people aware that something was happening.

Relatedly, you do know there are a number of us Quaker bloggers who are unhappily pushing the poverty line? I won't name names but it's an interesting phenomenon. Recently one Friend chided me for not being willing to go to a conference that would have meant four days off work and $200 in gas, tolls and lodgings. Another told me my videos would be better if I bought a camera that "is only $280." I just had to shake my head and laugh. Our internet's about to cut off (again), it's a minor miracle our hot water oil tank isn't dry, I need a $800 root canal and our car's catalytic converter needs replacing. Speaking of which, time to stop wasting my time on blog comments and get back to work.

Thanks for sharing all this and know that I for one enjoy the blogging rulebreakers!

Tania said...

For me personally, the hardest part about breaking social class rules is knowing what the rules are. I'm pretty solidly middle class right now, though perhaps on the lower end since we're a one-income family and I'm disabled (aka: large medical bills). If you're ever in Maryland and have time to kill, Jeanne, I'd love to just spend a day or two with you, so you can point out to me all the social class rules that I don't see.

Kathz said...

Great post.

I think some of Quaker practices and values are rooted in middle-class life. I've tried on occasion to question this, for example in relation to Quaker views on gambling. I can see lots that is wrong in gambling and I personally dislike it but for many working-class people gambling isn't just the best chance they have of improving their lives - it's their only chance. They are not going to improve their security by working hard because they are never going to get jobs that pay enough or, in some cases, suffer from illness or disability.

These days I don't have serious problems with money but I remember one Quaker gathering when a Friend asked me about my ambitions. I replied that I wanted to be a university lecturer. She was nonplussed and eventually told me, "But you need a Ph.D. for that." "I have a Ph.D.," I replied. She didn't say anything but it was evident that she didn't believe me and assumed I was either a fantasist or a liar. Evidently people like me weren't supposed to have Ph.D.s.

I don't know whether these two points come close enough to addressing your post. I think I'd like to add that breaking the rules is relatively easy but changing the rules - even the unstated rules which prevent equality within contemporary Quakerism - is really hard.

I'm from England, by the way (Beeston Meeting near Nottingham) Is that enough information? I don't want to post my email publicly because that tends to invite spam.

Jeanne said...

Su: The queries were inspired by queries George offered on the last day. And this post was informed by his query about being bold. I'm going to be more and more bold. I have two posts boiling over in me, but I want to give this one some more time.

Martin: I played the final round without chips because in the previous round, someone in the "star" group (the ones with the most points) actually slapped my hand away from a trade. I've had this experience a LOT, having my hand slapped away when I try to reach for something better.

I am befuddled by people with social capital and educational means who live at or below the poverty line. Pam and I have had conversations about this very thing, and I just don't get it. Maybe it's because I want so much more in my life (not money, but more of *something*) and I've had my hand slapped away so many times...I don't understand why people who have the means to reach don't do so.

Tania: The next unknown number of blog posts will try to make some social class rules explicit.

Kathz: Thank you SO much for commenting on my blog. It's such a balm to hear other peoples experiences of class bias. It's so hard to explain, and I feel so along among the very well educated Quakers. I'm sorry you've experienced classism, too.

You don't have to post your email--just have a blogger ID so that I know you're not some anonymous person trying to say something without owning up to it. You can always email me, too, at writeousness at gmail dot com.

Hystery said...

This post kicks up two things in my head immediately. Maybe three. Martin commented that a number of Quaker bloggers are pushing the poverty level. Count me among them. We live on my husband's $10 an hour job and my adjunct income (which is super-unimpressive and unreliable). Why don't I reach for more? I've been asking myself that and can't figure it out. Part of the answer is that there isn't more. The economy sucks and the professional/academic world does too. Having the right education doesn't give you a free pass to success. Neither does "hard work". Part of the answer is because I reject the "more" that is commercialism, etc. The other part of the answer is because I am afraid to reach for the "more" for fear that I'll be laughed at by people who will see through me and label me a ridiculous fraud. (They say this is common for women in academics. I also think it comes from being a rural person operating in more urbane settings).

Your game reminded me of one we played in seminary. One person sat behind a screen with blocks and told the rest of us how to build what she was building. At the end, we were asked to discuss our "feelings and reactions" (blech!) Other students said they felt flawed, embarrassed, inadequate, because they could not make their structures like the one the leader described. They were missing some of the key blocks. Then someone noticed that I hadn't even bothered with it and had made something completely different. I told them that as soon as I realized the game was rigged so that none of us could possibly succeed, I quit their game and did my own thing. Seemed perfectly logical to me. I couldn't get why they should feel so guilty that they failed at a game that was so obviously rigged. I wish it were as easy to shrug off the other stupid games we play in our society.

Martin Kelley said...

Jeanne: did you really just imply that our family's economic situation is just a matter of not trying hard enough? If so, then that takes the cake for insensitive, class-besodded crap. The idea that a college degree is some magical ticket to prosperity is sooo 1950s. In an age of out-sourcing and recession, a lot of degrees aren't worth anything. If I had to do it over again, I would have gotten a more practical degree or skipped college for a always in-demand skill.

Jeanne said...

Martin: No, I didn't mean to imply that. I woke up with my own personal "aha" about my own thinking this morning, and meant to post something earlier, but didn't get to it.

As someone who only recently got a college degree (who was surrounded by people with degrees upon degrees), the degree looks very much like keys to the magic kingdom, even if they're not in reality. From below, everything above looks kushy.

Everyone reaches higher, even people in poverty. We're all born with that urge. Babies do it when they roll over and crawl and then lift themselves up on the edges of sharp furniture (I went from scooting to walking on my hands and feet, without the knees...shoulda been a clue to someone about my need to reach).

My disgruntlement has to do with capacity and then choice. Not effort.

You, my friend, haven't chosen your situation.

But even you, your lack of "success" in the social class stratum isn't attributed to your social class.

It has been for me and tons of other people who have lived in poverty and who have been working class, tried to succeed then failed. If you're working class, try to start a business and fail, it's because of the class you're in.

George Bush does so, and it's unfortunate, but not attributable to his class.

So inwardly, I see someone with a college degree choosing poverty, and I cringe and wonder why.

Hystery said...

They may not be choosing "poverty" but "simplicity".

Jeanne said...

Hystery: Ah yes, "simplicity." Lots of Quakers do that and then run around screaming about their life in "poverty."

In 2006, I took an anti-racism workshop at Gathering. They had us do a series of "step out" exercises where they would ask people who'd experienced a certain flavor of oppression to step forward and talk about it. Each "ism" got two or three questions. Except classism.

That got one question and it was, "Step forward if you have to check your budget before making a major purchase."

Everyone but me stepped forward. One person talked about their experiences choosing to live below the poverty line to avoid war taxes. Another complained about her mother making her pay for air fare to get out to Gathering. And I lost it.

There are three problems with that question.

1. Budget is a middle class concept. Most poor and working class people's budget is defined by their paycheck. How does what's coming in compare to what's going out?

2. Major purchase. Before I met Liz, I didn't have a credit card, home equity or a car. I saved up for a year to buy a second hand computer. There was no line item in my "budget" for major purchases unless I put money in a jar for that purpose.

3. You're not oppressed by classism if you have to look at your budget before making a major purpose. There's a big difference between poverty and a chosen simple lifestyle. There's a big difference between situational poverty and living in poverty.

One of the things that attracted me to Quakerism was the seeming equality of everyone--the doctors didn't look any different than I did. Plain appearance as a testimony to simplicity.

What I didn't understand was the judgment that would be leveled against me because I couldn't practice the same kind of simplicity (choosing organics, wearing expensive fair trade clothes, having the freedom to work the hours I want, and so on). My failures got attributed to my class!

But that gets at another blog post I want to make about social class rules.

Hystery said...

Yeah. There is a difference between voluntary simplicity and poverty. Voluntary simplicity is a wonderful way to decrease one's negative impact on the environment and to minimize the amount of exploitation involved in one's lifestyle. So it is pretty cool. There's nothing so great about poverty. No one should have to be poor.

Sometimes I'm not sure what we have. We are intentionally following a lifestyle of "voluntary simplicity" which is pretty convenient given the fact that we have no money and no savings. We also have no credit cards and live hand to mouth. We can't buy "stuff" at all and what we do buy (clothes for the kids for instance) has to be second hand. But, we buy organic foods as much as possible. (Although there is little price difference in our grocery store which helps). What we have in our account is what we have. There's no way to borrow more so we must watch even little purchases even less than $10.

Would I live this way if I had more money? Yes. Sort of. I like to live simply but I'm tired of the stress which sometimes makes me cry or get sick with worry. And I get angry that I can't participate in lots of Quaker events, even the ones close by. My husband can't take time off for it (he'd lose his job) and it would be like asking us which we want that month- the Quaker stuff or groceries.

This is just my situation. I can't speak to others' conditions but I think we all have to keep talking about this. It gets ignored everywhere.

Tania said...

I've been giving this some thought since my last comment and have remembered my family's reaction when I applied for SSDI.

I'm college-educated at the sort of college that is more about learning than about job prep, went to a private high school (though with the help of financial aid), etc. When I realized I couldn't work a standard full or even part time job because of my health, I got some pretty hurtful reactions from family members. I got told things like, "It's such a shame for a mind like yours to go to waste."

I am living a role outside of my social AND age class, and it's not a choice. I receive Social Security every month; I'm on Medicare. I listen to people in my local community rant about "those people too lazy to work".

I can relate to your anger about the budget question at FGC, too. My husband and I don't make "major purchases". For us, a "major purchase" is anything over $15-20. Our "major purchases" are necessities, like paying for my medications during Medicare's coverage gap (over $1500/month) period. By your statement about budget, Rob and I are working class. We have credit cards, but only so we can "float" payments for a month (or sometimes more... my medical bills can be WAAAAAAAAAAAAY over what our monthly income is).

Maybe I was raised middle class and am now working class. Maybe my discomfort with these posts is the tension between the class I was raised in and where I am now.

Tom Smith said...

At the risk of being misunderstood (too often the case when I try to be succinct), It seems to me that class is a distinction imposed by "society" rather than the R Society OF. Part of the issue here, for me, is that "we" ( I ) often fail to see that the concept of R Society OF was to live by a different set of "rules" based on the "Kingdom" (Society) of God. I have struggled quite a bit with academic degrees (I do have a PhD) and "accepting" positions for which I was "over-qualified."

We (I ) far too often accept definitions placed by society/culture rather than the Spirit. However, I really am not a "pie in the sky sort of guy," but rather a subscribing to a philosophy of "Pray for a good harvest, but keep on hoeing!" I see the "garden" as what seeds we sow and where the seed is sown. The rocky soil, might be comparable to the parking lots of malls, big box stores, etc. The weeds that often choke off the seed and may not be totally done away with until "after harvest" are comparable to the "trappings" of consumerism, capitalism, etc.

IT IS NOT EASY to "redefine" class and society in these terms but it is my leading (often to my own regret) that this is what I am called to do by the Spirit of Christ.

Tom Smith

Jeanne said...

You're right--the RSoF are indeed following the rules of society. You're also right that it's not easy to change the rules of society. I know that. But I'm very clear to try to get us to do that. Quakers have been among those who have changed the rules of society before around race and gender (as imperfect as those attempts were). In those instances, it's been a few loud and brave voices who challenged the status quo while most of the rest of the RSoF kept keeping the rules of society the same.

I am going to be one of those bold and brave voices.

Hystery said...

Just a thought and not sure how it works into all this but how do you suppose downward mobility plays into these issues for folks in these discussions? As a Gen Xer, I've always had lower expectations of financial success than my parents' had. I have even less hope for my children regardless of their educational achievements. Now that the economy is so rough for so many, there will be more downward mobility as people with all the socialized and educational trappings of the middle-class find themselves in working class financial situations.

Chris M. said...

Jeanne: I like the fact that Martin could be fairly rude in one of his comments, and you took it in stride and offered a reasonable response. Whereas I, with my middle-class upbringing, just cringed at the conflict. It wasn't "nice"! I think a lot of middle-class Quakers cringe when we don't need to, or focus on "be nice" instead of "speak truth with love." Does that make sense?

Also, I would characterize your response to the Star Power game as revolutionary -- "stop this, it doesn't make sense, change the rules, a better world is possible!"

And then I liked Martin's suggestion of another way to be revolutionary, modeled on Jesus's comment to give it all away.

Please, keep being a brave and bold voice. I don't always agree 100% with you (why should I?), but I usually agree with most of what you write. I'm sometimes reluctant to say what I think (it might not be "nice"), but like Hystery says, we need to keep talking about this.

Jeanne said...


I certainly don't expect you or anyone to agree with me. All I ask of my readers is that you wrestle with what I say and that you comment too. This is because I also learn from all of my readers who comment. And I really appreciate people who are willing to keep talking about this.

Martin and I also had an email conversation about his comment. I apologized to him directly for not being clear, and he apologized to me too for being rash. I wouldn't call it rude. I told him he didn't have to apologize for being angry. Anger is a real and valid feeling that needs to be aired. I wish more Quakers would engage with me like that rather than the passive aggressive ways that they do it. The fact that Martin was willing to engage me shows me his love and care for the relationship and truth over cultural mores.

RE: Giving it all away. That feels like it fits into the category of breaking the rules rather than changing them--lots of people do that in Star Power, and it never changes anything.

Though in the last few days, I'm feeling stronger and stronger urges to try to live outside of the social class structure as a public witness to its incongruity with God's will for us. My really big block personally is that I take a drug called Gleevec, and it keeps me in remission from leukemia. It costs $6,500/month without health insurance. I did a rough calculation and realized that if I didn't need to pay for health care (and figured out how to dumpster dive), I could live on under $5,000/year. Insurance & deductibles & copays put that well over $10,000. But that's better than the $100,000 I'd be paying every year without insurance. To stay alive. I'm guessing that I would die without insurance.

So it's all pie in the sky. Which is why I'm reconvening my clearness committee.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Jeanne, these are great questions, and a great and overwhelming goal, to change the class rules.

I find myself echoing others, that this is hard partly because I don't *know* what those rules are - some of them seem like natural law, they are all the water we swim in, oblivious to our surroundings.

I would also question if any of them have value. I don't believe in class stratification, but some of it needs to be teased apart carefully. I am weary of folks associating education or intelligence with snobbery, for example. Intelligence and education are both, in my opinion, very good things. The problem, as I see it, comes when we fall into believing that being able to quote things in Latin makes someone somehow more valuable or worthy than knowing how to fix a car (when most of us can get through a year without needing to quote anything in Latin, or find someone who can) - or that the two are mutually exclusive.

Undoing the rules, wow, what a concept! I have to say I think something about breaking the rules often is intrinsic to changing them (abolitionists, for example, talked and lobbied and wrote pamphlets AND hid runaway slaves)

As for the money thing, giving it away would certainly do nothing to change the rules, but I think there MIGHT be creative things one could do with it that would at least help reshape some things. Many of my fantasies of "if I had money" involve trying to set up systems to help people get around unfair or crushing practices (setting up a loan fund to give mortgages to poor people, with less hoops and more human response to problems - so people don't have to pay 5 more percentage points for having bad credit, etc.)

Class is so tied into economic oppression, or at least the part that interests me most (sure some people will look at other people funny if they tuck their napkin in their shirt - but that's a stupid and minor symptom of a huge systematic oppression that is much more pressing, in my opinion) and economic oppression is what this country is founded on. I have no idea what strings to pull to unravel it, or even where/how to start looking for them

earthfreak (Pam) said...

"Every time a person living in poverty (not situational poverty, or chosen poverty) strives for a union job, every time a working class person reaches for the middle class by going to college, we're breaking this rule."

I would disagree with you on this one, Jeanne. Much like someone from wealth and privilege choosing poverty isn't REALLY breaking the rules.

it's my belief that one of our barriers to real change and equality in america is that we moved from some old english class system (which is much diminished in england as well, from what I can tell) to something we TELL ourselves is radical, revolutionary, egalitarian.

and union jobs and education are markedly different, imo, like a difference of kind. unions jobs are a way to have a decent livelihood within your original class (assuming you were working class to start with) while education is shifting something major on a personal level

but NOT on a societal level.

There is some room for a few people to move up and down, and as far as I can tell, that's part of the plan. if you can point to one poor black person who "made it" (and right now we have a handy example in our president, more or less) - then you have a powerful argument that classism and racism is "solved"

Of course that argument is bullshit, but it certainly is an opportunity to undermine those who are trying to fight it.

I personally love unions and I hate them. My politics are more communist. Not USSR communist, but I'd like to see more factories where the workers own the means of production, not through the state, but as a cooperative. I've worked in one of those, and classism certainly still comes into play (for the most part, the workers elected to the board are college educated, for example, even if only 30% of workers are)

unions have done great things. They also, in my opinion, reinforce the nothing that it's right that some people own stuff and call the shots, and some people do the work and ask their masters for compensation. Unions help ask with more "oomph" - but they leave the important question completely unasked in my opinion - why the hell do you guys get to decide in the first place?

Jeanne said...


I'm confused about why you think we disagree.

I'm making a really strong distinction between BREAKING the rules, and CHANGING the rules.

I can tell you for sure that within my family, going from poverty to working class has broken rules. That act for my mother, because she wasn't supposed to work or live outside of her station, has literally made her crazy. She's become socially phobic because she gets hammered all the time about why she doesn't belong among the middle class. No one says anything explicit to her, but she says it clearly when I ask her why she doesn't do more social things.

"I'm too country," she says.

And I say that acts like hers do nothing to CHANGE the rules.

Which is what I think you're saying when you say that breaking the rules changes something deep personally, but not on a society level.

Hystery said...

I think it is interesting that your mom uses the expression "too country" because when I'm feeling like I don't, can't, or won't fit into certain privileged groups, the reason I often give is that "I'm a country girl." I've been trying to figure out the intersection between my rural background and social class. I don't think it is simple or that the two are identical but I feel that they are related somehow. When visiting an urban meeting or when at conferences and seminars where lots of urban and suburban people hang out, I feel really insecure and like a fish out of water. I often feel that someone will discover me as an impostor in their midst.

One time I was most insulted at a doctoral seminar was when I was talking about struggling with being liberal among the people in my home town who don't value feminism, veganism, etc. Someone asked me why I tolerated it. Why didn't I just move? I felt myself get angry. Because that is my home! Because they are my community!

I wonder if others have thoughts on this.

Lone Star Ma said...

I think the issue of choosing poverty deserves a little examination. I am privileged to have had access to college degrees and it is true, in a way, that I chose to be a social worker and later teacher rather than a corporate CEO or something else that makes lots of money. We are certainly not poor as things are and are very blessed with health insurance which we really need for one of our kids especially but we still have to struggle and do things we really don't want to do (like both work demanding full-time jobs from the kids' earliest infancy,when it was clearly not good for the them to be in daycare that much at certain times and in certain situations,etc.) in order to afford that very needed insurance for our kids. We are very lucky but we do struggle. I cannot see it as a valid choice, however, to spend my life's efforts on things that I think are fairly evil, which is the better part of what I would have had to do not to be in a financially struggling position. I could not be who I am and choose to do the things I would have to do to be rich. But I think that, just as the many people who never had a fair chance to achieve financial stability due to class oppression deserve better, so do those of us who do not have financial stability because we choose not to be instruments of oppression through our work also deserve better. We all do.