In the old days everything was simple. Your social status was immediately obvious because your clothes, your accent, your demeanour, everything about you – all spoke of your position in society. Though there was some level of social mobility, it would have been almost impossible to ‘pass’ as someone of a different social class, else there would have been no ‘Pygmalion’ – and even no ‘Educating Rita.’
The advantage of this (if you want to see it so) was that it operated as a kind of shorthand. You could tell at a glance who someone was and how you should treat them. They could tell at a glance how to behave towards you; whether with deference or brusqueness, whether to give an order or hail you as a fellow. It made life easier and more straightforward. It also made it terrible. It put people in strait-jackets; it consigned individuals to oblivion or slavery before they were born.
Even when I was growing up in the ‘sixties, three distinct social classes were still in operation. It would not have been remotely funny for two Ronnies Corbett and one John Cleese to do the famous ‘I look up to him/I look down on him’ sketch if it had not expressed a visible truth. (Women didn’t even figure in this scenario because they derived their social status from the men in their lives; any unmarried working women were either definitely working-class or else practically classless.)
But now we have thrown all this out in the name of equality. I’m more than thankful for that, don’t get me wrong: the class system perpetuates privilege and injustice and ought to be abolished (insofar as it actually has been.) But there’s a problem. Because now that we have no shorthand telling us how to treat people, some of us are resorting to typing. Stereotyping, that is.* If you rely on appearances to judge the person in front of you, that’s called prejudice. We seem as a society to be particularly bad at taking people as we find them. We seem to need a kind of shorthand to help us with short-term encounters or first meetings.
*see what I did there?
Nowadays men know that they shouldn’t patronise women; white people are better-informed about how to treat ethnic minorities and I hope we are all much better at talking to people with disabilities. This is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist; of course it does, but we’re more clued up about it. We have strategies – and in some contexts, laws – to deal with it.
The problem is that the progress towards equality has taken place – in this country at least – within the context of individualistic captalism. We may all be equal, but we are all in competition with each other. We live in a ‘me too!’ society where everyone wants to be at the top; and we deal with this by means of competitions. Everything’s a competition now – just look at the TV schedules.
There must be a better way to do this. I just don’t know what it is yet.
PS Oh, and while I’m mentioning ‘Educating Rita’ I must recall a brief sojourn into the limelight by a friend. He phoned into Dermot o’Leary’s show on radio 2 to protest at the amount of rap music he played, and was invited to come on the programme and choose one word to describe a song they had just played. Words such as ‘bilge’, ‘offal’ and ‘dross’ received an outing: the item was called ‘Educating Peter’.