Talk Rules Are Classist

Our society claims to be concerned about less-favored races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, etc. But our most visible and well-enforced policies for showing such concern are rules about what folks may not say. And these rules are heavily classist, imposing much larger burdens on lower classes. Let me explain.

Humans have complex coalition politics, wherein we jockey for allies, test potential allies for weaknesses, and try to undermine rivals. We often communicate at several levels at once, with overt talk that better withstands outside scrutiny, and covert talk that is more free.

Lower “working” class cultures tend to talk more overtly. Insults are more direct and cutting, friends and co-workers often tease each other about their weaknesses. Nicknames often express weakness – a fat man might be nicknamed “slim.”

Upper class culture, in contrast, tends more to emphasize politeness and indirect communication. This helps to signal intelligence and social awareness, and distinguishes upper from lower classes. Upper class folks can be just as cruel, but their words have more plausible deniability.

The enforcement of laws against racist, sexist, etc. expressions is limited by the ability of courts and related observers to agree on the intent of what was said. Observers will not have access to all the local context and history that local folks use to interpret each others’ words. Now since official observers like judges tend to be upper class, they do tend to be better able to interpret the intent of upper class words. But this advantage seems insufficient compensate for the much greater indirection and politeness of upper class talk.

So when an upper and a lower class person both express disfavor with a certain race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc., the lower class expression is more likely to be legally and socially verifiable as racist, sexist, etc. If we add in the general reluctance of legal and social systems to punish upper class folks relative to lower class folks, we see that the burden of such policies mostly falls on the lower classes.

Could it be that advantaged folks are especially eager to support policies to help the disadvantaged when the cost of such policies are mainly borne by someone else?

(Idea stolen from a conversation with Katja Grace.)

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    Anti-racism, is classist and possibly racist?

    Interesting idea.

    • Anonymous

      In theory, it is probably possible to adjust the laws in good faith to compensate for this effect (to a degree). Of course, this assumes the politicians are willing to do so…

      • I’d say the classism is especially evident in the version of anti-racism which seems to require substantial knowledge about a large number of religions and cultures.

      • patrick

        In theory it is, but it would rely on those judging court cases to have knowledge of the relevant social context – which, given that judges are not normally drawn from the ‘lower’ classes, is a problem.

  • Unnamed

    On the other hand, the laws are typically applied to people in high-power or high-status positions, like bosses who create a hostile work environment or (in some countries) public speakers or published writers who say something prejudiced. A random individual who says something prejudiced to a friend is usually invisible to the legal system.

    • Thursday

      I’d agree. Anti-racist and anti-homophobic education hasn’t had much effect at the bottom. The left half of the bell curve are often absolutely brutal in what they say on those subjects. And there doesn’t much that can be done about it. They don’t depend for employment on the state. They don’t care about access to elite institutions. Those who work with lower class people care more about steering them away from much more pressing anti-social behaviours.

      • Anti-racist and anti-homophobic education hasn’t had much effect at the bottom.

        Even if they have no effect at bottom, they will apply to people trying to rise from the bottom. That means yet another barrier for people trying to become members of higher class. We officially don’t have problem with their origin per se, but we can denounce them as racists (or other -ists), thus hypocritically signalling how much we love the disadvantaged people.

  • Chris Gregory

    There are many euphemistic ways to be racist or classist without being overt. The obesity epidemic stuff fits nicely, since BMI correlates with social status. The expression of dislike or disgust towards fat people is an acceptable prejudice, in a sense, that has racist/classist underpinnings.

  • You should cite at least one such law. There are no “validated” laws in the United States against attacking races or other general categories. The only place I can think of where such comments are illegal are at the workplace.

    • lemmy caution

      The US has a lot fewer laws against hate speech than Robin seems to think.

      Check wikipedia on this:

      You can legally use all kinds of derogatory language.

      “The only place I can think of where such comments are illegal are at the workplace.”

      Even in the workplace, it is only if such comments cause a hostile work environment do you have a legal problem.

      • Bill

        I doubt this claim very much and also Mr Diamond’s related one.

        Suppose I am a middle manager at ACME Corp and also that I publish a racist newsletter and that this is known to my superiors. Suppose further that ACME Corp is named in a racial discrimination lawsuit. Are you claiming that the fact that ACME Corp upper management knowingly employs an avowed racist will not be admissible in court in the lawsuit? One of the arguments for firing Larry Summers as president of Harvard was that his statements would be useful in any future sex discrimination lawsuit against Harvard, for example. Are you saying that these statements would not, in fact, be admissible in such a lawsuit?

        If these things would be admissible, then, de facto, it is illegal to employ avowed racists in management positions. That there is not an explicit law against doing so is 100% irrelevant. And, no, there is not an important distinction between “it is illegal to employ racist managers” and “it is illegal for managers to express racism.” I believe that this reasonably accurately describes the current situation in the US.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    The enforcement of laws against racist, sexist, etc. expressions …

    Are there any such laws in the United States? (Echoing Stephen R Diamond …)

    • Drawbacks

      Obviously outside the US, but here’s an illustration. In case you’re in any doubt from the picture, the man imprisoned for writing rude things on facebook is lower class. Basically, two or three generations back, polite protestant society (in Scotland, also to some extent in the US) looked down on Catholics; now it looks down on anti-Catholics.

  • Konkvistador

    @Tyrrell McAllister @ Stephen R Diamond

    Since when is “our soceity” something limited just to the USA? In the rest of the Anglo-sphere, the West and much of the modern world such rules are much more common to the point of being nearly universal.

    • “Our society” may (or may not) be construed to mean just the U.S. (since when is vagueness a virtue), but certainly, the U.S. is part of “our society,” so these laws can hardly be called “our most visible and well-enforced policies” when they do not exist in here.

      And when you consider Europe, a whole different set of considerations come into play than those Hanson thinks about. It’s not a matter of helping “low-status” groups but fearing racist propaganda as prolegomena to another holocaust. Said laws did not exist before Germany lost the last world war.

  • jonas

    upper class white man’s burden

  • Mark M

    Politician’s often exempt themselves from restrictions applied to everyone else. It’s not a surprise that they did it again, applying the restriction to speech they and their peers do not use.

    We are actually free to “express disfavor” about minorities and other protected classes. Taking action and making decisions based on that disfavor is often illegal, but expressing the disfavor is legal.

  • Aren’t policies more generally used by those in power against disadvantaged groups?

    This seems obvious to a libertarian.

    • Then why are libertarians well-paid computer programmers and businessmen, not blacks, the unemployed, the poor, and Mexicans?

      • Without Thom specifying which groups, it’s generically plausible.

      • Bill

        Libertarians are not a disadvantaged group. And achievement is not a measure of advantage. Blacks and Mexicans are mascot minorities, i.e. privileged groups. The unemployed and the poor are not groups in any meaningful sense of the word.

        White, Christian, working class males and their children are a disadvantaged group, for example. They are one of the very few identifiable demographic groups whom it is socially safe to insult (especially if they are rural or Southern or both). In fact, it is not merely safe, but encouraged. They are discriminated against widely, and especially in institutions which are gateways to power.

        It’s not disadvantaged groups who we should expect to be discriminated against, but groups who are exploited by elites, potentially threatening to elites, or both. Non-elite White males, for example.

  • Bill

    A related phenomenon.

    Consider: shit, fuck, piss

    Consider: feces, sexual intercourse, urine

    The first three are English words which exist in Old, Middle, and Modern English. The second three are imports from Romance languages. That these sets of words mark status differences has something or other to do with William the Bastard, n’est ce pas?

  • Aram

    What makes you think that lower classes “talk more overtly”?

    As an outsider, your perspective is going to be skewed. For example, you might not understand the covert layers of what they’re saying, or you might not have access to the same kinds of conversations.

    As an American living in England for awhile, I found it hard to avoid similar mistakes.

    More generally, your writing is good, but contains a lot of confident assertions of breathtaking scope.

    • Growing up in the suburbs surrounded by middle- to upper-middle class white people, I heard virtually no profanity until middle school. Now I live in a city and take public transit, mostly with poor people, and I hear much more profanity. The age of cell phones also contributes.

      It took me a while to get used to the idea of my kids growing up in this environment. But they’ll learn when to curse and when not to, same as I did, but at a younger age.

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    Good point. Political correctness as a differential weapon to silence the lower classes but let the upper classes off scot free.