Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do What You've Been Told Kids

Nat over at maphead has been blogging about more than maps of late. He's been pondering why our meeting has been having such a hard time making a statement about wearing scented hygiene products or perfume in our building. He posits that it's because our faith community has a hard time giving itself over to the will of God. "It is a deep and systemic distrust of mediation of any kind," he says.

I have another theory related to his.

My experience of middle class people is that they don't like being told what to do. At least when I try to lead something, I'm called bossy. On the other hand, among working class people I can easily slip into and out of leadership and people follow easily and with little or no resistance.

Conversely, a middle class upbringing trains people to manage others and be a leader. I've said so before on this blog.

I think the "deep and systemic distrust of mediation" comes not from history but from social class training.

My experience of being taught to be managed is typical of working class people even today. New York Quaker Patrick Finn wrote a book called "Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working Class Children in their Own Self Interest". His book's website has an exercise that illustrates how elite schools teach the same material a different way in working class and elite schools. It shows how working class kids are taught to think about knowledge and understanding differently from middle and owning class kids.

I'm not suggesting that the middle class way of learning is bad--I actually think everyone needs to have equal access to that kind of education.

I am saying that there might be something middle class Quakers need to learn from Quakers who are culturally working class about the joy of letting someone else (God) manage our corporate spiritual lives.

For once, I have a kind of advantage in the Quaker way of doing things. I find comfort in seeking and following the will of God because it was what I was taught to do in the working class schools I attended: do what you've been told, kids.


natcase said...

Jeanne: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

"My experience of middle class people is that they don't like being told what to do." Isn't this also true of lots of working-class people, resentful of their bosses and others who hold unwarranted power over them? Like Hystery's recent post. It is after all in working-class environments that revolutionary socialism and trade unionism found their roots.

And what of middle-class conformity, about which so much has been written in the last century? The pettiness of the bourgeoisie?

But conformity is different from submission, or it ought to be. That's one of the early Quakers' big points, and one we keep carrying on theory. You suggested this in an earlier comment on my blog, that "we're much more interested in cultural homogeneity than in God's will."

And I think it's worth spending time looking at the relationship amongst: conformity in a social group, submission to a powerful leader of the group, and submission as a group to divine will. I think in most of society, these things bleed into one another and make a kind of power soup. Regard

But here's the thing about that statement about cultural homogeneity: we as a meeting and a wider religious organization are full of contrarians—much more so than the wider population, almost as much as the Unitarians. These folks (heck, Nat, might as well own it... we folks) are interested in cultural homogeneity mostly to find out how to do something different.

As a mass cultural phenomenon, this orneriness starts with, what? Bohemians in 19th-century Paris? The post-World-War-I "Lost Generation"? The Baby Boom and the reaction to McCarthyism and Vietnam? Until pretty recently, these groups of "don't tell me what to do" people were counter-cultures, and the dominant middle-and-owner-class message was one of conformity coupled with service to God and Country.

I think a lot of the resistance to submission can be specifically traced back to the Vietnam era, and the growing sense in a lot of people in the middle and owner classes that the submission they had been taught was being corruptly abused.

And we, in our 40s and 50s, who were kids or young teens during Vietnam, we're trying to feel our way back to a more balanced place, while many of us still have that deep suspicion to deal with. Which was, I guess, where I was heading in my post. Thanks for giving the push to spell it out more clearly.

Jeanne said...


It wasn't the unwarranted power that created the conditions for trade unionism and revolutionary socialism, it was the abuse of that power.

Working class people weren't saying "I don't want to do what you're telling me to do" as much as "I want to do this safely, humanely, and for a living wage." They still wanted and needed those jobs, and still were taught (and are taught) to do what they're told in working class schools.

"Contrarian" behavior is the behavior of the privileged, so while it's not always welcome in mainstream America, it's very welcome in lefty liberal culture to which I'm often referring when I am talking about social class.

You say "...we, in our 40s and 50s, who were kids or young teens during Vietnam, we're trying to feel our way back to a more balanced place, while many of us still have that deep suspicion to deal with." as if everyone in their 40s and 50s (and I would add some in their 60s), are contrarians when it was mostly white middle class people. Working class people of that age deeply distrust and dislike their middle class counterparts precisely because of the entitled actions of hippies.

You track it back to Vietnam, but this person who grew up working class who is still friends with many of the working class people she grew up with, sees social class training at the core.

I hope that you understand that I'm not criticizing you or your argument as much as I'm wanting you and others to start to see social class as an integral part of our society and part of the way the Religious Society of Friends operates.

Hystery said...

My father grew up working class. He also was a "hippie".

There are cultural differences within socio-economic classes. Working class for some is a completely different experience than it is for others. Add race, gender, region, and so many other distinctions and it becomes increasingly difficult to accurately summarize the collective experience of class (or race, or gender, or region, etc.) Of course, this does not mean that we should not continue to try to understand our differences and their sources. It does not mean that it cannot be fruitful to seek out historical and sociological patterns. I just feel that we should be wary of applying terms, particularly derogatory, dismissive, or stereotypical terms, to refer to the actions and experiences of those who do not share our worldviews. I may be a "lefty liberal" but I earned that through hard experience as well as by inheritance and training and it hurts to have those experiences referred to with a term that is used by many to minimize the real passion I feel in my life. I also wish to thank you for your courage to speak your own truth clearly although my own truth and observations are often a great deal different from those you speak.

natcase said...

Thanks, Jeanne. I appreciate your wrestling with this, though I too differ with you on approach and theory. If I didn't think this was important stuff I wouldn't be spending the time on it...

I go back to my original comment, trying to parse out in my own experience the differences between submission/conformity to group expectations, to God's leading, and to the expectations of a human leader. My sense is that people more often than not get these all mixed up together, and when they feel betrayed by what they have submitted to, one common reaction is to reject submission altogether, because they seem so similar in form.

That rejection happens all across humanity, and is not class-based (heck, every kid does it some time or another). What does vary by socioeconomic situation is the reaction this rebellion elicits. Poorer non-conformists don't get as many breaks in school, as you point out. More of them end up in prison for telling The Man to fuck off one too many times. That's actually one of the things I like about visiting guys in prison: the conversations have all kinds of weird, convention-breaking turns.

But again I go back to history: McCarthyism was brutal to non-conforming higher-ups. Peaceniks of all ages get spat upon and worse in wars from time immemorial. It is absolutely true that poorer folk have always gotten the shaft a lot more quickly and violently for breaking rank then wealthier folk, but that doesn't mean that wealthier folk always get to be non-conformists. And again I would say that we in the 2000's have an unusually heterodox middle-class and owning-class population. We don't have to go to far back to see much more rigid ranks closing in, and indeed I would guess that at some point those old stories of wealthy non-conformists finding their freedom among poor folk (running off to join the gypsies) start looking like reflections of the real social situation.

Anyway, thank you again for keeping on wrestling with this!

James Riemermann said...

I see this quite differently. The culture of "doing what you're told" in the working class results not from a natural tendency or preference, but from training. The owning classes developed the public education system--intentionally and arguably with a fair degree of malevolence--to train poor people to do what they're told, along the way imparting only the most basic skills in the three Rs. People who don't question authority make much better factory workers. It was an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution, which moved us toward using people--specifically poor people--as cogs in machines.

The wealthy owning classes have always had their own schools geared, as you note, Jeanne, more toward training leaders than followers.

A movement away from the emphasis on obedience in the public schools has been underway in recent decades, and, not surprisingly, has gained more traction in schools serving middle- and upper-middle-class families than schools serving poor families.

I applaud the trend. Down with obedience.