Sunday, September 20, 2009

Social Class Rule #2, and an Apology of Sorts

I've said I'd talk about making social class rules explicit. Here's the second one.

Middle and owning class people make the rules, and when working class or poor people don't follow the rules, there are dire consequences

I'll give you a secular example first. Take the connection between teen pregnancy and poverty.

This statement is accepted as true by most people, rich and poor alike:

"Teen motherhood is a great way into poverty."

It's not a rule, but a statement of fact. Friends from high school and cousins who were themselves teen mothers have admitted this fact to me, and described how hard it is to be barely out of childhood and raising a child.

This statement is an example of a rule made by middle and owning class people:

"You must wait to have children until and unless you and the proposed other parent are truly, emotionally, socially, and financially ready to care for them."

It can take a lot of privilege to wait until you're deemed ready to have kids according to this rule, stated to me recently by a middle class Quaker. And the consequences of breaking the rule are dire, even though they don't have to be (if we had true economic justice). But this blog isn't about social policy, per se.

What does any of this have to do with Quakers?

We like our rules, and the consequences can lead people to leave meeting thinking Quakerism isn't right for them (at best) or make people feel bad about who they are or where they come from (at worst). As I see that on the page, it doesn't seem so dire. But it is to me.

I believe that God speaks to us in the best way we can hear God's message. For some that's through Catholicism, some that's through Wicca, some that's through the Quaker practice. If we're even unintentionally turning away a whole class of people because they're not like us, I believe we're acting directly against what God would have us do not just for our meetings ("diversity" and all) but for each lost soul searching for a spiritual home who might find one with us.

I admit, having grown up working class, I liked all the rules at first. Don't watch TV. Don't drink unfiltered water. Don't dress up for meeting. Now though, I see not boundaries but brick walls, impenetrable but through a narrow door that fits only a certain kind of person. It breaks my heart every time I get an email, which I do about once a month, from someone who says they left because they felt so much the class outsider. I struggle mightily with staying.

But I do because God said so and still says so every time I sit in the silence.

Stay.

***

The apology, of sorts:

I'm sorry I can't say things the way you can or want to hear it. But I don't know how. Really. And I can promise you it's a social class thing. I've tried over the last couple of years to learn how to say things so you can hear them, but to little if any avail. The only place where I seem to have the grace (most of the time) to be clear and understood is when I'm running a group. But I'm beginning to accept this about myself, and I'm stopping trying to have you hear me. You will or you won't. You'll get it or not. You'll be offended or not. It's okay. I'll still publish your comments, even when you disagree with me, if you're respectful and reasonable and not anonymous. Conflict is just fine as long as you're not calling me names or belittling me (or anyone else for that matter). I'll say what I'm led to say and hopefully learn from what you have to offer, even if it's to sharpen my own understanding.

23 comments:

Gina said...

I just started following your blog, and I just wanted to say that I really appreciate what you've written here. I've been in Evangelical Friends churches for about 10 years now, and I've been increasingly uncomfortable in this setting but I remain proud of Quaker heritage as reformers. Your blog gives me hope that maybe I'll be able to find a place that is more comfortable for me at a Quaker meeting.

I hope to reply in more depth in the future on some of the class issues you discuss, but tonight it's late and I have a lesson to plan for tomorrow's class :)

Jeanne said...

Gina, thanks for stopping by and taking time to read and comment. I look forward to hearing more from you and am glad you have hope! Your hope shores me up a bit too!

Hystery said...

My experience with Friends has clearly been different from yours. I have not noticed such a great emphasis on these "rules". Of course, I live in a rural area and that could lead to a different kind of middle-class mentality than the kind you often describe.

I'm wondering about the motivations of the rules however they manifest themselves. Do they grow out of a sense of superiority or do they grow from a commitment to the testimonies we share as Friends? Are we willing to stand apart for the sake of our beliefs or are we peculiar for the sake of standing apart? Acknowledging that elitism can be as strong a motivating factor in our behaviors as good-will seems like a critical step in addressing these questions.

I am unhappy where I live because my behaviors and convictions are considered suspect by those with power. I might be happier living among Friends whose "rules" match my personal rules. But if I lived with people who didn't think my beliefs were weird, would I have your ability to see the uglier motivations behind rules that actually fit my life and beliefs? I do not know. Perhaps I am better off being an uncomfortable misfit here and being thankful for the offering you make from your discomfort there.

Su Penn said...

Jeanne, I love you and your blog. As someone concerned myself about social class issues in Quakerism, I've really welcomed your voice. At the same time, as somebody who has spent her life being terminally nice, I admit to having to consciously be aware of that bias when I listen to you, and own it as my own middle-class thing rather than putting the onus on you to speak differently. I'm glad you've chosen not to take the burden on, even though I know it has been hard on you trying to speak your truth and deal with the reactions.

Jeanne said...

Hystery, thanks for chiming in. I appreciate your representation of the rural perspective. Social class is different from region to region. In Minnesota for instance, even working class people are reticent to talk about emotions but that's because the culture here is Swedish or Norwegian, both very stoic societies. Rural is different from urban. South is different than north. Race matters as well as longitude and latitude.

For me, the motivation isn't as important as where we stand when we make the statements. I know that no one intends to be hurtful. At least most people.

To take the secular example I gave--teen pregnancy is something that's good to avoid! I don't challenge that. What I do challenge is turning a truth into a rule and standing above another class and claiming to know what's best for "them".

Eating beef is harmful to our environment is true and bears repeating. But the Holy Spirit needs to change my heart about this before I can stop eating beef. But many lefty liberal middle class people turn this into a rule. Don't eat beef. Or you're a bad person.

I've had this conversation a lot with Pam about the depth of truth and I'm only now figuring out what the social class rule is.

Quakers have a testimony of simplicity, but it's clear my heart hasn't been changed about that. I don't need someone to tell me where I'm erring--God does that in worship for me, with the Light. [This is how I experience the Light--it isn't a peaceful loving thing but one that exposes even my deepest shadows and shows me an equally deep compassion]. I benefit when I hear how other people are struggling with the truth within themselves than I do when someone declares something as a rule.

So I lay bare my struggles.

Su, thank you for making your process explicit too. It helps me to hear your struggles with all of this as well.

Hystery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Jeanne you said,"I admit, having grown up working class, I liked all the rules at first. Don't watch TV. Don't drink unfiltered water. Don't dress up for meeting. Now though, I see not boundaries but brick walls, impenetrable but through a narrow door that fits only a certain kind of person. It breaks my heart every time I get an email, which I do about once a month, from someone who says they left because they felt so much the class outsider. I struggle mightily with staying.But I do because God said so and still says so every time I sit in the silence."
I too have been in that chorus line with you singing about how do we stay among Friends.
Being a Quaker of Color,I have also join with the psalmist singing,How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Truth is for folks on the margins particularly with regards to class and race the Society of Friends feels at times like a foreign land.The experience of being in a strange place is lonely and frightening.I love FGC Gatherings!
But for many people of color to give up a week of vacation, pay close to thousand dollars, to be in environment that is ninety seven percent White.Is a challenge! I don't care how liberal the environment is,it is still a challenge.
I am bless to have a network friends at the Gathering.
But it is still a challenge for me!This experience is repeated in monthly quarterly yearly meetings.
The reality is for progressive folks of color who share a contemplative activist spirituality, unprogrammed FGC Quakerism exactly where we need to be at this moment.
But there is this gulf with class and race.I don't know how we can bridge it or if Quakers of the dominated culture truly want to bridge this gulf?
Nobody will admit, of course.If you don't experience social integration ( class or race)where live or work why should Sunday,Yearly Meeting or the Gathering be any different?
You conclude with these words" I struggle mightily with staying.But I do because God said so and still says so every time I sit in the silence."
It is only by the grace of God that I have stayed among Friends.
Paul

George Amoss Jr. said...

Friend Jeanne,

Thanks for good food for thought. Speaking of food, though, I do have a concern. You wrote, "Eating beef is harmful to our environment.... But the Holy Spirit needs to change my heart about this before I can stop eating beef." And "Quakers have a testimony of simplicity, but it's clear my heart hasn't been changed about that."

I'm a bit concerned about those statements. They seem to hold God responsible for our moral failings, even to tell God what s/he "needs" to do before we will be able to bring our actions into accord with the life of love in our hearts. Am I reading you correctly in that?

It seems to me that my recognition that a particular class of actions is morally wrong is evidence that the ball is in my court, so to speak -- that the light has already illuminated me, and that now I need to open myself to the power to walk in the light. Does that fit at all with your experience?

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Paul - thanks.

Your bringing up the psalm, "how can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" brought it home to me in a way I haven't "gotten" it before. Not that I get it now, but I'll keep trying. I wish it was as simple as being willing!

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Friend George,

I think you make a good point, and it's not as if we have to wait for a burning bush experience to be transformed. It's important not to resist a leading and blame God for not making it clear enough yet.

That said, I totally know where Jeanne is coming from about that topic.

It's a subtle line, and a hard one to draw, it doesn't make "sense" actually, what's hard about it is giving up on it making sense, maybe.

But as an animal rights activist who tried for a long time to "change people's hearts" by essentially telling them they were callous assholes, or simply refusing to associate with them, I learned that it's not an effective technique.

And, like I said to Paul, about myself "getting" it in a way I hadn't from what he said.

That happens, and we cant' MAKE it happen, we can just keep trying, and talking to each other.

Now, on the other hand, we can do things we know to be "good" and refrain from doing things we know to be "bad" without radical transformation. Of course we can.

I dont' eat meat because I feel the pain of the animal whose body is before me every time I try. It's visceral, it's spiritual, it's intense, and it's often damn inconvenient.

I buy Fair Trade with really nary an emotional reaction. I hate to think about children slaving away to make widgets for me, but that one I can generally avoid. It's a choice I've made intellectually and ethically, and I find it is often possible to abide by. (but not nearly as often or as closely as the one I feel "led" to)

But if overall we do things because other people will think better of us, we have lost something, an important something.

I believe our role as members of a religious community is to love each other (as god loves us?) unabashedly, unreservedly, and to share our insights, and our feelings about certain issues, but never draw a line based on them to keep somebody out.

Jeanne said...

Paul, thanks for stopping by. I'm sorry you have to experience the same kind of struggle with staying in your spiritual home too. The foreign land is doubly foreign because in some ways it's exactly home and in so many ways you're told it's not. I appreciate your sharing your story. Taking the shades off of folks' eyes, including my own, takes as much Light as we can all muster.

Including yours, Pam.

George, my heart is changed by God's Light. It's my job to let that in and be open to it. I do that through meeting for worship. I think God weeps because my heart isn't changed, and God is doing as much as God can. But God also gave us free will, and it's pretty strong. At least mine is. Thanks for asking for a clarification.

In the sake of transparency, Pam posted a question relating to my secular example, and I'm choosing not to post it because I want to keep us focused on Quakers and Quaker practice. We'll talk about it over email.

natcase said...

Thanks for this post, Jeanne.

Rules. It's easy to see rules as imposed from outside, but there is also something in us that craves, even requires, the structure that rules provide. Not all rules are made by middle/owning class: every parent makes rules for his/her children, many of these not out of a desire for social conformity, but out of a desire for the child to live unmaimed to adulthood.

I keep running into people who, frankly, could do with a rule based structure like the Rule of St Benedict. I say this not as an middle-class clucker (though I probably am), but as someone who sees people of a variety of classes who are lost, for whom that sort of structure would be a godsend.

Your question then, how to not turn truths into rules, could also be put as how to allow rules to evolve from truth, not be imposed as part of a power-grab into other people's lives. Or how to build rules that do not build in prejudgment, or that defer judgment away from humans: this is what most religiously based rules do when they work.

Interesting stuff, and not out of line with what I've been wrestling with myself. Thanks also for the Apology of Sorts :-). I hope we are able to talk sometime.

Jeanne said...

Nat, the rules aren't about an individual's power grab. They come in a context and are about a system. When I talk about social class, I'm talking about a society and a system that supports a structure that oppresses people.

Our economy is structured to need a class of people living in poverty because without poor people, there's no reason for working class people to fear for their jobs (there wouldn't be the threat of someone else needing their job), and therefore no reason for them to settle for the low wages they get. If the working classes aren't settling for low wages, then rich people won't stay rich and get richer.

The owning classes give the power of making the rules and enforcing the rules to the middle class so they feel they have some power, when in fact they don't.

As for rules evolving from truth...there's a very good reason why Quakers have testimonies and don't consider them rules. One is that truth is always evolving; setting the truth in stone makes it that much harder to see new Light. Another is that our testimonies are evidence of our changed hearts, not guidelines to live by. First comes the changed heart. Then the new way to live life. Not the other way around.

Which is why the middle and owning class tendency to make the rules is harmful to Quakerism.

Hystery said...

I'm right with you, Jeanne, on the obnoxious injustice of the class system and that there are certainly a set of rules that we follow (both conscious and unconscious) that keep our society stratified.

I am wondering, however, if all the "rules" (or guidelines, or beliefs, or testimonies, or manifestations of testimonies) are class-based. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, while I see a great need to tenaciously resist injustice, I also resist the notion of a single panacea, a magic bullet, that will solve the intricate tangle that keeps so many people from achieving the fullness of their humanity. Sexism, racism, classism, and so many other "isms" work together in often mysterious and alarming ways. Of course, you've already written about this.

But I also wonder if some "rules" that emerge out of one class, gender, race, etc. are actually beneficial to people who exist in other classes, races, or genders. "Don't drink unfiltered water" for instance is one you identify as a middle-class rule but one that would likely benefit working class people even more since working people tend to live in environmentally degraded communities where drinking unfiltered water could have a greater detrimental effect on their health than on the health of a wealthy person who very likely lives somewhere where the water is just fine to drink right out of the tap.

I think what is needed is a careful approach to every "rule." We could ask the following questions, "Who makes this rule and what motivates them?" (And I would maintain that there are always multiple motivators).

"Is this rule beneficial to me or those I am called to protect and sustain or will it merely settle me neatly into someone else's expectations?" (There may be some class rules that are a definite benefit to the individual. Higher education, for instance, is often worth pursuing although, as you have pointed out and I too have experienced, it will lead to whole new issues and questions. Other rules, like terminal "niceness" seem to me to be really more about making powerful people feel comfortable.)

"Is the rule based on an ethical/moral perspective with which I agree? regardless of its source?"

"Does this rule enhance the quality of life for those who deserve my concern and advocacy?" If the rule seems to be motivated BOTH by class-based elitism AND the moral desire to make the world a better place, then we must make a decision about which motivator is more important to us. Liberalism is often associated with the middle-class but many liberal causes actually originate with groups with little access to prestige, power or capital. We also know that privileged people will take over leadership. For instance, I find it infuriating when men have explained feminism to me. This leads me to the next question:

"Are we humble in our alliances? Do we assume the right to determine the best outcomes for those who accept our help? Do we see ourselves as servants and guests of those who accept us into their movements, taking their lead and trusting their experiences or do we arrogantly assume we know what is best for everyone else?" (That's a really tough one.)

"If the rule emerges out of a religious community that is dominated, at least in recent history, by one class, is the rule a result of class experience or is it inspired by the group's corporate relationship to/experience with the Divine? Is it related to corporate discernment in their (perhaps privileged but no less important) experiences as educators, reformers, human rights, and peace activists?

I'm sure there are more questions but the point is a critical first step in helping us determine not only what motivates our choices but how to apply our choices in the most spiritually faithful, morally relevant and socially responsible contexts.

Jeanne said...

Hystery,

I am not talking about the value of the rules, but the structure of them and who gets to make them and why. Owning class and middle class people making the rules keeps one class rich and everyone else in their place.

And I'm only pointing at social class rules. I name other things as examples people might be familiar with.

I value clean drinking water, appreciate that I don't have to wear pantyhose to meeting, and see why it's important to limit television time. I also think it's wise to wait to have children until you're able to support them.

I don't value our system that oppresses many and benefits few.

Your questions might be helpful for people interested in taking that system down but my experience is that there aren't that many people, and they don't in reality have as much power as people in the owning classes.

kibbles said...

I'd say the comment about rural is really on to something. My 'new' group is here in Iowa (a small city, 60k). My old Meeting? Brooklyn, in the upscale part of it. The class difference isn't so bad here, it doesn't seem to matter. In Brooklyn I felt poor, uneducated, unsophisticated, unworthy. They were nice, but I didn't feel like a part of it. Here, I do. I feel like I am valued, and can contribute. I feel trusted. I like that. :)

Jeanne said...

Kibbles, I don't have much experience with rural folks outside my family, which is solidly working class. But I get a sense that rural people appreciate people who can work hard, and there isn't room in rural society to snub people on whom you depend. Which meeting do you go to?

Hystery said...

Jeanne, you write, "Your questions might be helpful for people interested in taking that system down but my experience is that there aren't that many people, and they don't in reality have as much power as people in the owning classes."

Sadly, I must agree with you and must admit that there is a certain simplistic idealism in my response that does not address this point. I hope to hear more from you on you thought regarding this.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

As a Quaker, I think it is my job to break rules, and observe testimonies. I think that's part of what being a Quaker means.

It is hard to be the one who is subversive around artificial rules, whether rooted in classism or anything else. But I think our faithfulness demands it.

It's more important to wait to be led, and to follow those leadings, than it is to be embraced by our meetings. I'm (rather obviously) not a Christian, but I think that's part of what's meant by taking up our crosses.

If we can sustain you in your rule-breaking, and nurture you in your witness to testimonies, Jeanne, let us know how.

I think really being Quaker--listening to Spirit, not simply trying to please man--is never easy. Of course, it has always been hardest for those whose leadings were not in step with their meetings, and who therefore had less help with corporate discernment, from Woolman's day to our own.

Chronicler said...

>>Middle and owning class people make the rules, and when working class or poor people don't follow the rules, there are dire consequences.<<

This is an interesting thesis, but I'm not sure the facts support it.

Would thee mind stating some "rules" that have been established by upper class Quakers for everyone else to follow? The three in thy list are not Quaker rules at all, though the one about television is good advice.

Several upper class Friends have been disowned for breaking the real Quaker rules - Elisha Bates, Joshua Maule, David Updegraff, Isaac Hopper ...

Of course, some hyper-wealthy Friends such as Joseph J. Gurney never were disowned but made their mark by encouraging Friends to drop our nonconformity and abandon our original doctrines, or to break the real Quaker rules. It was the wealthy Friends who were calling for a revision in the Discipline in the 1830s to allow tombstones, and it was the poor Friends who blocked the move. It was the wealthy Friends who began to purchase land adjoining Friends burial grounds so they could be buried with tombstones near the meeting house.

Leading faithful Quakers have come from all social classes. Christopher Healey and Ann Branson were destitute for large chunks of their lives, yet their faithfulness 150 years ago continues to resound among concerned Friends today. Similarly, wealthy Friends such as William Evans, Morris Cope, and Johns Hopkins helped reinforce Quaker folkways for Friends of all social classes.

In my yearly meeting, concerned Friends are assisted when needed with financial needs related to their callings and leadings by Friends of means. About a decade ago, a Friend who had a leading that required a quite large amount of money made the need known, and almost twice the amount of money was raised than what was needed. Something similar happened to Daniel Wheeler when he traveled to the Indian Ocean area - a Friend of means purchased a small vessel for him and paid for the crew to take him on his voyage.

In a faithful Friends community, each of us is accountable to all others in the meeting, and all are called to be in submission to the meeting as a whole - not to the wealthy members alone.

So I am truly interested in something that supports thy thesis here.

Jeanne said...

Chronicler, thanks for stopping by. When I talk about social class, I'm NOT talking about ONLY wealth.

I lead an exercise where people line up according to social class when they were 10 or 11 or 12. I don't tell them where to be in the line, but somehow they find their way by talking with each other about their lives. Then I ask them to come up with how they decided where to be in line (social class markers), no one ever says "how much money my parents made." Less rare, but still not at the top of the list is, "what work my parents did."

When I talk about rules that Quakers have, I'm not talking about legalistic doctrine. I don't feel like there's someone standing at the door of the meetinghouse keeping some out with a checklist. I'm talking about the cultural rules that are unconscious, that let people know that they aren't welcome. I'm talking about personal experience about a system that's largely invisible to most everyone in it.

It was invisible to me for the first 40 years of my life too.

New York Yearly Meeting's newsletter The Spark is coming out with an issue in November where members write about the issue of social class. I'd recommend you start there to try to understand this issue.

I'll post a link when it comes out.

Cat, thanks for offing your support; and I appreciate the reminder that I'm to follow God, not man. It's hard though because that's one of the messages from the middle class to the working class and poor: you're doing it wrong, and if you only did it OUR way, your life would be better. I hear it all the time in what I read, watch and see. My partner says this to me. My friends. My Friends. And even strangers.

So support would be a regular reminder of that truth of who I need to follow.

I also appreciate people who are willing to wrestle with AND and take time outside of our interactions to educate themselves about these issues of class. I'm working hard to unpack that invisible knapsack, and would appreciate it if you would too.

Hystery said...

"Unpacking the invisible knapsack" is important work. I have found that in addition to an invisible knapsack, I'm carrying a chip on my shoulder from injuries sustained by my hybrid status as both working and middle-class person. In a world of blurred social boundaries and confusing expectations, perhaps this is true for others.

Isabel Penraeth said...

Hello Jeanne,

I'm wondering what sort of things are at the top of the list.

Isabel

("I lead an exercise where people line up according to social class when they were 10 or 11 or 12. I don't tell them where to be in the line, but somehow they find their way by talking with each other about their lives. Then I ask them to come up with how they decided where to be in line (social class markers), no one ever says "how much money my parents made." Less rare, but still not at the top of the list is, "what work my parents did.")