Tag Archives: culture

Classy Agency

[Epistemic status: still figuring things out. Like most discussion of class or society, this is a somewhat reductive view on categories of people and their thoughts/preferences/behaviors. I’m trying to figure out and point to broad trends, not prescribe what should be, or what has to be, for any given person.]

The relationship between class and agency has been really interesting to poke into as a way of exploring both. I’ve been working on developing a new lens on this in relation to my actions and what perspectives/generators they’re coming from, and it seems to have uncovered some assumptions/blind spots.

Starting to notice what class my actions would signal has lead to a feeling of constraint on what I could actually do to solve problems around me. The explicit version of an inexplicit chain of thought I had today would be something like “If I want to test this brush before I buy it, the obvious thing to do is just lay my jacket out on the floor and test how good it is at getting dust off.” Which totally works, assuming you don’t care what strangers in a store who you’ll probably never meet again think of you.

And that lack of care can be crucial to actually getting things done sometimes. When you boil it down, about a third of what “having agency” ends up requiring in the world includes the willingness to break social norms that others would be too afraid of censure or judgement to breach. This is a big part of why Quest Day is so successful for students at the end of SPARC or ESPR; it creates an atmosphere that gives license to do things that are, in essence, “weird,” such as walking up to strangers and gathering data on unusual questions, putting on an impromptu improv show at a local pub, or asking a cab driver to let you put on a blindfold and get dropped off at a random location.  Weirdness isn’t necessary in many cases where showing agency is what gets something done, but it can’t be an impediment if the thing you’re prioritizing is actually to Do The Thing.

But there are costs to ignoring some Chesterton Fences around others’ comfort that someone blind or uninterested in class or status is much more ready to pay. And this means more than just how people judge you; it includes the comfort of those associated with you. Being able to make that trade can be vital for someone who has no other options in getting something difficult done, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, if you judge the tradeoff too high.  you can have more than one consideration while prioritizing, and there’s a fine line between determination and tunnel-vision, and if you’re used to doing things with low resources, then you might get stuck in a local maximum when your context has changed.

High class people don’t have this problem, because they operate with fewer constraints, and have socially supported ways of exercising agency. This isn’t to say that all of them do; I’m not actually sure which classes are most or least “agentic,” and maybe the framing itself is still too entangled in what it means to enact your will on the world.

But it seems more clear to me now how, when high class individuals exercise agency, it looks different than what lower or middle class people are used to; primarily, it’s through delegating tasks to others. My friend Lulie made the analogy of limbs as an extension of the self in enacting agency in the world, and obvious though it seems in retrospect, it unlocked a whole cascade of realizations.

Giovanni makes a similar argument in my story at one point, but at the time I wrote it more as a method to achieve difficult goals, not ways-of-being. How well you delegate suddenly doesn’t just seem a matter of efficiency; it’s like an entirely different theory of self.  When you legitimately think of yourself as not just your body, but the resources at your command, your agency is enacted through everyone who does what you want them to, for whatever reason you give them to do it.

From many low or middle-class perspectives, this can look like indolence, sloth, parasitism, etc. Part of this is because being low-resourced develops habits that skew against relying on others, but I think another part is because bodily skills feel intrinsic and heroic, while social skills seem (and in the case of things like money, often are) transferrable, which is bucketed with concepts like “unearned” or “vulnerable.” The average skilled laborer could get dropped naked onto a deserted island and maybe build themselves a shelter, but the average elite raised with a silver spoon would be helpless.

Except that’s clearly a challenge biased toward one set of skills. Social skills may be more contextually fragile, but they’re also immensely more powerful in a world as interconnected as ours; success through skills useful in the state of nature may be a more deep-seated value evaluators, the same way muscles do, but social muscles are no less real for being invisible.

(This is probably in part reinforced by fiction. Heroes (both in life and in stories) use charisma all the time to talk their way out of problems, but most fiction doesn’t turn those sorts of actions into interesting plots resolutions outside of a few narrow situations like rousing speeches or duplicity. This is largely because a) most writers are themselves unused to seeing these dynamics play out, and b) most readers wouldn’t find the challenges of someone in this position as relatable or aspirational. By and large, people want to be rich and socially respected to *avoid* conflict and hardship in life, not to face new types.)

What’s left, then? Well, there’s also general attitude of what agency “looks like” and what it says about the person.

One of the major marks of an “Honor Culture” is that how you’re perceived has actual effects on how you’re treated. The best example of this is what’s considered an appropriate response when someone gets insulted. In most “modern, progressive, civilized” societies, ignoring insults is a sign of maturity and status; it indicates that you’re secure enough in your life and sense of self to be utterly unconcerned by what someone else thinks of you. But in Honor Culture it’s a sign of weakness, because reputation often means as much, if not more, than resources. If being perceived as weak invites attack, then you have to show strength at all times.

Similarly, I think taking action to solve one’s own problems seems intrinsically to be a lower class act by those in the upper classes. For the leisure classes, security is taken for granted, and so any actions taken are at most a hobby or interest, not something you get invested in. In more cut-throat setting, being invested is a sign of vulnerability; if you care about something besides your wealth, you may be willing to trade wealth for it at disproportionate rates.

In addition, not having someone at hand to do something for you could indicate a lack of sufficient security itself. Taking on the task of repairing an out of date automobile is impressive if it’s a choice, but it doesn’t signal competence at anything that “matters,” because the moment you actually need a car to be fixed, it’s almost always a better use of your time to hire someone else to do it for you.

To lower and middle class people, being personally dependable and resourceful in this way is an attractive and admirable trait, but if it is the only way you can get something done, it seems on net a weakness.

This is all still a series of tentative hypotheses, but they feel like the start of a new generator. Meanwhile the class-lens feels much clearer, and the self-reflective part of it feels less restricting; instead it’s more like there’s new space for “me” to stretch into, if I choose to.

“Safe Spaces” for the Right and Left.

Apparently, Texas students stormed out of a class wherein the professor asserted that humans all descended from Africans.

Texan students storm out after professor says we’re all of African descent

My brain feels wobbly around this, which tells me there’s something more to it that I’m not grasping right.

I’ve always thought of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college campuses as obviously important-if-done-properly, but widely blown out of context and misunderstood and exaggerated by detractors in order to talk down to millennials or find a new avenue to attack “PC culture.” I haven’t been in school for about five years, so it’s never really affected me, but my sympathies have always been vaguely with the people asking for what I consider to be justified uses for triggers (to prepare students for traumatic content in lessons) and safe spaces (to allow discussion of voices that normally self-censor due to fear or anxiety).

This event seems to fit into neither of those. It’s a professor, apparently innocently, relaying facts, and people getting upset and leaving the class as a result of their own political beliefs (as opposed to walking out because the environment was not “safe,” since presumably, no one was heckling people for walking out until they started to do so).

What makes this interesting of course is that the politics of it are flipped around from the stereotypes. So presumably, “PC” liberals would be hypocritical to mock the people walking out, but only if they don’t view trigger warnings and safe spaces as applying the way I described: if they do only consider them as meant for traumatic material or oppressed minorities, then they’re not being hypocritical in mocking people for reacting in a way that they themselves are often mocked for supposedly condoning, since they would consider that mockery to be aimed at a strawman that they are watching occur in real-time, but from the “opposition.” In other words, gleeful mockery at seeing people who normally might make fun of them for doing the exact thing the people leaving the rooms are doing is kind of understandable. Kind of like seeing a bully run home crying to their mother after the bully has repeatedly used the “crybaby” insult on them.

(Whether they’re being rude, or whether it’s the best reaction to have, is a different matter, of course.)

On the flip side of this, there are potentially conservatives who are NOT okay with trigger warnings of any kind, and NOT okay with safe spaces of any kind. Hopefully none of those people are making excuses for the people who walked out (in the interests of not being hypocritical), but if they’re attacking them for being representative of how “PC” and “pampered” college kids are these days, then they’re still strawmanning, because again, the usually proposed uses of trigger warnings and safe spaces would not apply to this circumstance. So once again, I find my sympathies aligning with the liberals ever-so-slightly more than I do the conservatives, assuming no one is being hypocritical (for the hypocrites, obviously, my sympathy is minimal).

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding what the real use of safe spaces and trigger warnings have been about. Maybe I believe in the “ideals,” but in the trenches of the war these ideas are fighting in, people are pushing for safe spaces for ANY topic, or trigger warnings for ANY topic, that might offend anyone and, as the detractors insist, simply serve as an excuse to further distance themselves from ideas they dislike, and entrench themselves in intellectual bubbles.

I don’t doubt that some people might in fact want that, but I tend to view those who do as in the extremes: maybe that’s a mistake. Since I’m not in the trenches, I don’t know.

But for now, I’m going to hold onto the ideal, and examine this circumstance (at last) through the lens of what I hope might do the most possible good:

Do the people who walked out of this class deserve a “safe space?”

The uncharitable view, of course, is that they simply walked out because they didn’t want to listen to someone talk about things they considered “obviously wrong” or “offensive” to their notions of what humans were, where they came from, and how their religious beliefs and racial identity tied into their ego and sense of self.

So assuming the professor acted professionally, which seems to be the case just from the article, most people I think would say no, on both sides of the aisle. This is, as I said, the classic strawman of this position, made all the more contentious because it’s being actualized by the political culture that tends to most often be against “PC” culture.

But from the perspective of the kids who left, do THEY feel like they had to leave because they were unable to speak their mind free of ridicule or peer pressure?
And that, I don’t know. But it’s possible. On most college campuses, even in Texas, conservatives can in fact be a minority that feels “unsafe” airing their political or religious views for fear of the ridicule it’ll bring.

So if I’m being charitable, which I’d like to be, maybe these students really do need a safe space to talk about their beliefs about the origin of mankind without being mocked or feeling pressured into accepting the views of those around them, so they can really articulate what they believe and why, and maybe be more open to having their views challenged and changed.

And of course maybe there was a mix of both such students who walked out of the class. Apparently some stayed behind to argue, in any case.

Ok, the wobblyness has mostly faded, now that I’ve written all that out and feel a bit more secure in what I think and why. If anyone wants to let me know if I’ve missed something, please do.