I’ve been worrying about my last post. In my final diatribe I suggested that the route to exploding this dementing social mobility prism (through which almost everyone seems to see success) was to encourage pride, true pride, about wherever you’re from. And really, that is not the problem.
The problem is that we have too much pride. And too much pride can bleed into defensiveness and exclusivity, the “ours, not yours” attitude (which sometimes dovetails into snobbery and elitism, or prejudice, xenophobia and racism). Pride has an arc of benefit. In a position of oppression, pride is empowering; it can give you strength to fight for yourself, to lift you up. But when it extends too far beyond what you need to believe in yourself, it descends again into oppression—this time of others. It ends in closing your mind.
I really enjoyed the first half of Grayson Perry’s first episode, In the Best Possible Taste. He was a brilliant, illuminating, insightful artist-cum-ethnographer. His questions may have been loaded but he was there to draw inspiration for his set of tapestries, not to write his PhD.
One thing he really highlighted in this first episode on working class tastes, based on his experiences in Sutherland, was the sense of pride felt there. And I have a hunch that next week as he explores middle class tastes, that will be a theme present there too. A slightly dishevelled, un-ironed version—all the stronger for its cunning and mystique. One of his tapestries depicting the middle class captures it brilliantly, the William Morris wallpaper, raggedy books, bruschetta:
Pride, in all its knots and hues, permeates our society. So screw pride. Too much of it. It closes minds, robs us of our intellectual mobility and ends up perpetuating the problems of social mobility.
The key to social egalitarianism isn’t in strengthening pride, but instead in strengthening curiosity and openness (with a dash of humility too). The key is to go against our evolutionary, tribesmen roots and rather than fear those not like us, to actively embrace diversity. Not just the saccharine three Fs of other cultures (food, festivals and fun), but all the messy, tricky bits that don’t sit comfortably with who we are, what we know, where we are from. It’s not going to be a great big happy rainbow party, a perennial Jubilee. Jeez, no. On the spectrum between tea at Buckingham Palace and a cage-fight, it’d be somewhere in between the two.
This would, to some extent, go against the approach of Kate Pickett et al. of The Spirit Level, who don’t, in my mind at least, tease out enough the frustrating current correlation between social equality and ethnic homogeneity. In fact, their findings show that the most unequal areas of the US and elsewhere in the world are those places in which there is greatest ethnic, racial and religious diversity. There are huge, complicated issues that need to be untangled, not brushed over. What works in Sweden probably won’t in Mississippi.
Back onto social mobility again. It’s now the universal aim of politicians in this country (as pointed out in a great, querying piece in the Guardian this week). Even Grayson Perry kept harping on about it, though he admitted it was imperfect, that the mobility was really, regrettably, only one way: up. (Hello, Yazz…)
So why is social mobility always made the end point? The ultimate goal? Yes, let’s aspire to a wide range of education opportunities for all (be that formal or informal, hard or soft). Yes, let’s aspire to greater economic freedom for those who are close to the breadline. Yes, let’s aspire to higher levels of well-being and happiness for all. But why, why bundle this up with social mobility as the end goal? Why not go crazy and put the de-class-ified ideal of flourishing as the end goal instead? Is it just too wishy-washy? Are we back to the imagery of the happy rainbow of people, dancing beatifically in a wildflower meadow?
Screw that too. I’m after a bit of honest, scrappy, heterogeneous communications and connections. Not class tourism, mind. I think no-one said better about the futility and, frankly, bullshit that that entails than all-star Jarvis Cocker:
Schools should be the places where we all get mixed up, but ambitious (middle class) parents do their utmost to make sure it doesn’t. Universities should be the places, but the rifts between privilege and less exist stratify them too. Workplaces often are, but there the hierarchies are so entrenched that there’s little opportunity for genuine, equal cohesion.
I come back again to the need for open spaces for dialogue, discussion and debate. The sort of spaces that, through Spark+Mettle, we are trying to create in a tiny way. I don’t know how to scale them but I believe, unequivocally, that this is the way forward.
Please note that I deliberately did not say the way up…