Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Invincible Ignorance

Polly Toynbee on "chavs" :

"Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture. Over the last 30 years the public monstering of a huge slice of the population by luckier, better-paid people has become commonplace. This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. When safely reproduced in Downton Abbey, as the lady sneering at the scullery maid or the landowner bullying his workers, we are encouraged to look back smugly as if these shocking class differences were long gone. The form and style may have changed – but the reality of extreme inequality and self-confident class contempt is back...

Chav is used to mix together anyone of low status the speaker wishes to despise - and that includes the entire working class - on matters of taste as well as morals. Just go to the dreadful ChavTowns site and see how the two are elided."

Polly is so far off the truth you wonder if her ignorance is deliberate. She hears some posh person (in this case a Lib Dem politico tweeting unwisely) using the term and conjures up a conspiracy to demonise an entire working class.

The contributors to ChavTowns are overwhelmingly themselves working class people (and by the spelling and grammar, people who have been failed by our comprehensive system).

Working class people detest the chav/underclass far more than middle or upper-middle class people do, because they live among them and are exposed to their behaviour on a daily basis. That's why the contributions to ChavTowns are so bitter, angry and heartfelt.

16 comments:

JuliaM said...

You'd think, from her column, there could be no such thing as a middle-class chav. I can assure her, they do exist...

David Preiser (USA) said...

If the "public monstering" has taken place only over the last 30 years, is Toynbee claiming that this class snobbery vanished between 1912 and 1980? Things were improving when? She's gotten very wealthy creating these fantasies to champion the working classes.

Foxy Brown said...

The much maligned Victorians used to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving working classes, something Toynbee and the modern, urban Left have rejected because it's judgemental and is aligned to Judaeo-Christian principles of personal morality. But it was that very differentiation which assisted those people who made up the decent proportion of the working class, socially and economically.

Sam Tarran said...

Completely agree, Laban. Of course, we can't expect Toynbee to really have any idea what a 'chav' is, because you have to live in the real world to know it. Love for her to come to one of the bars I work at and see some of the people I have to chuck out. I doubt she'd consider them working class heroes then.

Anonymous said...

What a silly woman. The working class and the chav underclass are not the same thing. The underclass don't work, don't want to and make the lives of everyone around them more miserable than they need be. The working class are people who do just that, work. They work long hard hours and often for rubbish pay. They hate the chav underclass spongeing from them.

Bessie said...

I don't think Polly Toynbee actually watched Downton Abbey either: I didn't notice a great deal of class-based sneering or bullying.

But she may be right that a lot of people lump the underclasses and working classes together, whether to romanticise them -- as she does -- or to demonise them. You have to actually be working-class or one or two generations removed to appreciate the distinction. My dad took a pretty dim view of the undeserving poor, a group that included his own first cousins.

Mark said...

'You have to actually be working-class or one or two generations removed to appreciate the distinction.'

Spot on Bessie- which is why Polly T is utterly clueless on this subject. As indeed she is on nearly everything else.

Orwell once wrote about the descent into stupidity of large swathes of the English ruling class, and how between the wars it accelerated with the force of a chemical reaction. There was another explosive descent in the late 60s & 70s- and Polly T is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

dearieme said...

'You have to actually be working-class or one or two generations removed to appreciate the distinction.'

No you don't: it's enough to have had a wide circle of acquaintance as a child. (Any bets on how wide Polly's circle was?)

It's rather like the old sociologists' distinction between the Rough and Respectable working classes - I dare say that that distinction is lost on Polly too. D'ye think she understands proletariat vs lumpenproletariat?

Foxy Brown said...

@ Bessie,

I don't think Polly Toynbee actually watched Downton Abbey either: I didn't notice a great deal of class-based sneering or bullying.

Neither did I. I don't wish to romanticise the world which existed before the Great War as there were certainly fewer opportunities for the working classes, and that rigid social order was set in granite, but watching Downton Abbey I was struck by the noblesse oblige of those "upstairs" to members of their household "below stairs". As to whether that state of affairs was widespread, in the various stately piles up and down the country, is another thing. Presumably Julian Fellowes, a bona fide toff, based it upon some specialist knowledge of that particularly stratum of society.

@ Sam Tarran,

Good to see you back, Sam.

dearieme said...

The chavs are, I suppose, Mr Attlee's children. Decent chap, Attlee, but oh the damage he wrought!

Single Acts of Tyranny said...

If only you could move a couple of chave in next door to Polly who is safely insulated by wealth from 'em

Vladimir said...

Toynbee's book "Hard Work: Life In Low Pay Britain" is quite interesting. She spent a few months doing menial jobs, living in a crappy flat, and trying to manage on a very low income. So, unlike many members of her social class, she does know something about the chavs.

But curiously, she never mentions them directly in the book. The presence of chavs is obvious from her writing. There are drug users, squatters, petty crooks and vandals living near her, and Toynbee implicity recognises their existence from the piss in the lift, the rubbish on the stairwells, and the stream of people going in and out of the ground floor flat at all hours. Tellingly, she knows very well that it isn't wise to be out after dark.

Another curious thing is her theory on mugging. She explains in her book that she was never actually robbed, but her teenage son has been on numerous occasions. From this evidence, she derives the curious theory that mugging is in fact a form of bullying, carried out by teenagers against other teenagers. Thus, the possibility of mugging (or "street robbery") does not concern her.

There is certainly some rather interesting cognitive dissonance here - she knows that chavs cause problems, but she finds ways to explain those problems without needing to make any sort of deserving/undeserving distinction. On the whole, a fascinating book, with the exception of the final chapter which is a tedious anti-capitalist polemic.

Cyrus said...

Surely the most entertaining part of the Downton Abbey reference is the implicit classism of Dear Pol herself. The old canard of snobbish, bullying toffs sniffing at the poor is surely just the sort of class contempt that Pol is attacking.

As someone who knows a lot of public school types I must say I've only ever seen them sniff at the working classes in an exaggerated and ironic manner, aping the cartoonish depictions of Edwardian classism. They usually manage to sneak in a reference to Flashman or Blackadder too.

I also think that she is wrong. The sort of complex class system of the Edwardian era has gone. Certainly there is much less understanding of class. One only needs to compare ITV's "Upstairs, Downstairs" from the 1970's to the modern BBC version. The ITV version was subtle, with an understanding of the variation in class distinction and feeling. The BBC version had all the subtlety of a Ken Follett book.

Laban said...

I don't know if I've said this, Sam, but many congratulations on gaining a place at one of our most prestigious seats of learning. Richly deserved. Is it History ?

Sam Tarran said...

Thanks a lot Laban, means a lot. Yeah, was always going to be really. Don't quite know how I'll find the student lifestyle though after a year of full-time (and then-some) work. Not the worst problem in the world though is it?

Dr Cromarty said...

The 'respectable' working class hatred of chavs is akin to Chris Rock's diatribe about Black People vs Niggaz