Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

5 thoughts on “Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

  1. I have always attacked inequality as it relates to consumption of luxury goods and services (like first class seating, typically) on the basis of efficiency, as prima facie evidence that a real trickle-down is needed from the ones at the top to the ones at the bottom to be even mildly utilitarian. The shrug the right uses to justify massive inequality isn’t an argument, but a general appeal to freedom as a final arbiter. I don’t deny they’re free by law to aggrandize and then optimize their state how they will; I just think it’s morally appalling. My complaint is of charity in a utilitarian sense: ignoring many others’ potential massive benefits of, say, a million dollars, to decide to buy a 10 million dollar yacht instead of a 9 million dollar one, is fundamentally inefficient. In that sense, gross inequality is grossly inefficient. Arguments to the contrary that don’t rest on the half-point of freedom typically assume that all purchases roughly equivocate in stimulating the economy– that there’s a multiplier effect to money that raises all boats roughly equivalently. I ask people to find the place in Adam Smith’s ouevre where that remarkably critical diadem rests. The speciousness of that argument can be seen by pushing our current reality only slightly to people starving over not getting that million dollars. There are two multiplier effects. One– the economic one, how many times a dollar rotates in an economy in a given year– is roughly irrelevant to well-being, while the other is a direct input to well-being. Providing small increments of utility for the few in direct exchange of large amounts of utility for the many is the very heart of the notion of charity. Feed the poor and heal the sick, or buy a bigger house than you need: we want to ignore that that decision is always there, that we’re always making that kind of decision, even as middle class people. We can’t escape morality in our consumption choices, and we shouldn’t try. We don’t have to worry much about issues like whether we pay for our kid’s state college or feed the poor: there are roughly zones involved, a set of questions that aren’t a part of a conversation about the social costs of gross inequity.

    Here, your point is more about the mirror-image of this problem with charity, the surprisingly symmetrical effect on psychology and, if you will, spirituality: the wealthy deliberately manipulate the poor through discrimination and the wielding of morally undue power, and the poor resent it. That the middle class gets involved seems to be just an extension of the above notion: there is no clear boundary between selfishness and gross selfishness. We live in a culture that doesn’t self-regulate, through either law or shame, the effective abuse of others through aggrandizement. Almost all of our worshipped celebrities, including the ostensibly liberal, fall into this abusive category; instead of being ashamed, they are the very engine of this machine of inequality, and generally should be boycotted, derided, and ignored as one is able.

    I work effectively full time with homeless people now, and these principles have seeped into me as part of my cellular structure. I didn’t anticipate that change in me. It causes me great stress at times.I rather easily forgive my relatively wealthy family, friends, and even my local individuals. Many are saintly, after all, in spurts. A. s you point out, there’s a relative part of this calculus that’s inescapable. We are victims of a societal and increasingly global trend, a force we can only address well collectively. I find it hard to morally condemn people by asking them to be distinct statistical outliers in their cultural niveau. We are such social creatures. In an important way, culpability is an amorphous, gelatinous, spread-around affair. But increasingly, I feel an alien in their homes, in their restaurants, and in their pursuit of their hobbies and their children’s interests. Selfishness holds great sway in our lives. I’m merely blessed, and cursed, to be irrevocably enlightened on the point, by suffering friends.

    Regarding those who are wealthy but don’t consume like it, the moral picture is much more complicated. If you want to convince yourself that you’re gathering wealth to eventually maximize the suffering of others, you’re either fooling yourself or not, and I rapidly lose qualification as moral arbiter. But if you don’t succeed– if you lose your wealth, after all that gathering of eggs– you were effectively immoral, or empirically so, and that should give us as individuals pause when we use such a justification. Only when your shit gets into a foundation like Carnegie or Gates can you even begin to claim a moral victory through aggrandizement. There’s the cost to the poor of the years of aggrandizement, and there’s the risk of fucking up the charity in the foundation. Not the kind of risky path I’d choose, but let’s leave the door open to moral adequacy for them. Versions of this fairy tale are more common than people think, and are one of the key reasons I like to make very large distinctions in judgement of the wealthy. It may be hard to get to heaven if you’re wealthy, but many are used to getting hard things done.

    These are moral, irony-soaked, and, in the end, spiritual affairs. We need spiritual renewal, and are in turns unable and unwilling to see that need. I’m afraid that the increased interdependency of the modern era will teach us that lesson in terrible ways, all at once and and too late.

    • You are right to frame it that way. Part of the outrage of that couple is their obliviousness. It’s the awareness, however peripheral, that the system is not only unjust but unstable and unsustainable. They can feel the tension of this rickety, wobbling social order.

      But they can’t or won’t see it for what it is. It wasn’t only outrage and maybe far beyond even anxiety for in some ways it seemed like a panic. The world they thought they knew where they knew their place and their role, that world was suddenly thrown askew and they had no psychological resources to deal with it.

      I knew nothing about this couple other than their socioeconomic class based on their conspicuous spending. Considering the town, they are likely ‘liberal’ Democrats who hoped Clinton was going to be our next president. Whatever the case, our society has become toxic and everyone is feeling sick from exposure to it.

      Such people aren’t trying to be assholes. All that they’re doing is reacting to the situation, no different than so many others. Our society doesn’t offer much to help in understanding any of it.

      That is a major change in recent generations. Most modern Westerners see everything in terms of politics and economics. But in the past, from the American Revolution to the Populist Era, it was more fully understood that the central issue was social, moral, and spiritual.

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