Last night I finally got around to reading this piece on ‘scripted reality shows’ and my heart sank when, almost inevitably, Paul Flynn’s defence of them began with:
You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they’d make deathly dull TV and wouldn’t want to be on it, anyway.
Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life.
and celebrating that:
In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people.
The instant recourse to ‘snobbery’ and class as a defence of the shows is something I have heard time and time again, despite being one that falls apart even in the hands of its user. Flynn acknowledges that Made In Chelsea is about ‘Posh West Londoners’. Is Flynn arguing that these shows are only hated by ‘middle-class’ people with a snobbery about both working-class people and ‘posh’ people?! You would hope not, since such a position would be incoherent.
The bottom line of the argument is quite clear: these shows portray working-class people being working-class, and if you dislike them you are a class snob. It’s like some perverse rhetorical game of Quidditch with ‘working-class’ as the Golden Snitch - whomever manages to claim it most effectively instantly wins the argument (does referencing Quidditch make me a snob?!). It’s a pernicious tactic which is used in many different spheres of life. As the recent media brouhaha has neatly demonstrated once again, the tabloids excuse the nastier elements of what they do with an appeal to the ‘ordinary/working-class person’ who apparently wants to read everything they print. When Hugh Grant appeared on Question Time and eloquently demolished the morality of the tabloid media, he was asked ‘Who are you to tell ordinary people what to read?’ (Grant’s response of ‘Who is Murdoch to tell us who to vote for?’ was a brilliant reposte, quickly revealing that such demagogic arguments are invariably a smokescreen for the influence and interests of the powerful.) Again, the bottom line is clear: if you criticise the tabloids printing dubious stories about celebrity affairs etc, you are attacking the working-class and are a snob (and again, it’s not an argument which really holds together given the strong middle-class readership of papers like the News of the World).
It’s a frequent argument in politics too. Usually it is again used to mask and defend the interests of the powerful, even if well-intentioned. The current project of ‘Blue Labour’ is a perfect example. It summarises its appeal to the working-class as “faith, family and flag”, arguing that this community is fundamentally conservative and Labour should defend its interests and identity. I won’t write an essay on Blue Labour here but suffice to say that its appeal to working-class conservative is implicitly an appeal to a white working-class (though of late this has become rather explicit, with Glasman’s courting of the EDL and recent demand to stop immigration). The way it speaks about this community has the air of people who haven’t met a working-class person in decades telling everyone else what they think and relying on the Golden Snitch argument to undermine any and all criticism. No real evidence is offered for this working-class conservatism. The spectre of organisations like the BNP is wheeled out as justification, conveniently ignoring the fact that research suggests that there is no correlation between being working-class and supporting the BNP, and that it in fact it is the lower middle-class who are most represented in its supporters.
When did everyone become so scared of criticising anything that is perceived as working-class, to the extent that quite indefensible ideas go unchallenged for fear of being labelled a ‘snob’? Isn’t it more malign to argue that the vacant, self-obsessed characters (of all classes) typical of scripted reality represent the working-class and that any educated person attacking this is a snob? The implication here is that working-class people cannot be educated, eloquent and engaged without somehow being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication with the tabloid argument is that you cannot be working-class and try to be moral and/or believe that much of the substance of tabloid ideology is debasing and damaging without being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication of the Blue Labour argument is that you cannot be working-class and believe that racism and bigotry in working-class people is their own responsiblity, and inexcusable, without being a class traitor. This is drivel.
We should not be fighting to ‘level down’ by romanticising stupidity, bigotry and prurience as working-class ‘qualities’. They cut across class boundaries and they are open to criticism wherever they may be found. We also should not be fighting for a world where ‘working-class’ is romanticised to the point where everyone is scared to criticise anything which identifies with it - especially other working-class people, the vast majority of whom do not watch scripted reality shows, do not read the News of the World and do not vote for extremist parties.
I am unasamedly working-class, grew up in a working-class community and had (and continue to have) many working-class friends. I think education is a good thing. I think being engaged in the world around you is a good thing. I think believing racism and bigotry is wrong no matter where it is found is a good thing. Am I typical of the working-class? Maybe I am…some would say I’m not. Am I a snob? If you believe that, I think it says more about your own attitudes to class than anything else.
First things first - I don’t condone any of the rioting, looting, arson, muggings and general thuggery whatsoever. I think it’s frightening, horrible and hugely counter-productive. I hope that those involved are held responsible for their actions. I feel I have to put this because any attempt to move beyond stock responses to all of this seems to be jumped upon by crazies who accuse you of ‘siding’ with the rioters and being pleased that families are being burned out of their homes.
There are, of course, already thousands of responses to these riots out there. What I think is pretty irrelevant. However I’ve felt such despair in the past few days that I feel the need to articulate it, to get it out there so that I can move on.
The reason for this despair are the reactions to these events I’ve seen and keep seeing, particularly those from people who self-identify as ‘lefties’ and/or ‘liberals’. Card-carrying Labour members. Socialists. People who routinely condemn the reactionary rubbish found in the Daily Mail or The Telegraph. People who, only two weeks ago, were applauding the ‘measured’ Norwegian response to the massacre there and contrasting the commitment to ‘more democracy’ with the reactionary responses they imagined you’d see in Britain.
It has, to put it mildly, been eye-opening. Beliefs, if they mean anything at all, surely must be beliefs that we hold even when it is difficult to do so, when it seems that we are in a tiny minority and when there is a rush towards easy certainties. The speed with which educated, ‘liberal’ people have abandoned any semblance of reason and resorted to the language of the far-right has truly frightened me and makes me worried for what is to come after these riots are over.
Firstly, there has been an unthinking prostration before the police. People who, only last week, were at the very least suspicious of the Mark Duggan affair are now fully-fledged cheerleaders for the police, shouting down anyone who dares to question them. Let’s remember that the spark for this was the police shooting a young father and the suspicion which immediately followed this. Eyewitnesses immediately questioned the version of events put forward by ‘police sources’ and, it seems already, they were right to do so. Trust in the police is utterly destroyed in many of these communities. The IPCC swiftly moving in did absolutely nothing to placate matters - the same IPCC who, after all, immediately accepted the police’s version of events in the Tomlinson killing and only had to accept that it was false when video footage of the attack emerged. The relationship between the police and these communities is clearly hugely problematic and is playing a huge role in all of this. Yet with quite grim inevitablity, people responded to two evenings of riots by demanding a more authoritarian response from the police. I’ve seen countless demands for the police to ‘crack some skulls’, to ‘shoot the bastards’. Cuddly, giggly liberal icons like Caitlin Moran were asking for the army to move in. There was, it seems, absolutely no effort to attempt to understand the relationship between the rioters and the authorities, the effect that more brutality would have on the situation (and that is the paramount thing - I haven’t spoken out against this response because of a hand-wringing concern for the people rioting, but because I genuinely believed it would make things worse).
It has since emerged that the police were ordered to “stand and observe” initially. We didn’t need the army, tanks, bullets or cannons. We needed an effective police presence. The reasons ‘police sources’ have given for this initial, ineffectual approach? That the MET felt ‘inhibited’ because of the response to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the kettling at the student demos earlier this year. It really defies belief - after riots sparked off by the police shooting a man and then (it now seems) deliberately misleading people about the circumstances, the police imply that they haven’t been able to effectively respond because people make too much fuss when they kill innocent people and imprison innocent kids. If we applaud this, if we play this zero sum game and agree with the police that it’s either their way or chaos, our society is fucked.
In short, it’s perfectly possible to want an effective response from the police, to believe that there are many brave police officers out there, without completely suspending your critical faculties.
The second hugely depressing response, one which seems almost ubiquitous, is the dehumanising of the rioters and the belief that they are all rational individual agents. There is an illogical tension here - on the one hand these people are portrayed as ‘mindless’, ‘feral’, ‘idiots’ and ‘scum’ who lack any intelligence whatsoever; on the other, they are individuals who have rationally chosen their actions and are only rioting so that they can get ‘trainers and free TVs’. You can see the hatred dripping from the screen when people write and speak it. People who seem to believe that, across the country, people have decided that now would be a good chance to get some free things. People who happen to overwhelmingly come from areas with similar economic and social backgrounds, with similar problems, with similar demographics. Clips of rioters speaking have been passed around in order that we can all laugh at how inarticulate they are, assure ourselves that they are all subhuman morons who deserve nothing but brutalising.
Make no mistake - it’s clear that the riots have moved very far from the Duggan situation. It’s clear that hardened criminals are taking advantage of them. It’s clear that many of the people involved have absolutely no political intent in what they’re doing. Accepting that is very different from saying that this is not political. From saying that there are reasons why these people even feel that they can/should engage in this behaviour while the rest of us assert that we would never do it. Others have written about this background far better than I could so I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that when people demand that the rioters get a job, when they wonder where their parents are, when they ask why they are attacking shops, when they (as one man did on BBC news on Monday evening) express shock that this is happening in an area of ‘trendy people with good jobs’ - these are political issues and looking at each of them seriously goes some way to beginning to understand why this is happening.
The latter point regarding the ‘trendy people with good jobs’ is one very relevant to the responses I’ve seen as I think many of the left-leaning people whose reactions have provoked despair would probably fall into this category. I’ve lived in Hackney for 5 years now and I initially moved here because, quite simply, it was the cheapest place I could find. It wasn’t horrible or intimidating by any means but even then, people expressed jokey surprise that I would move to an area just beside the ‘Murder Mile’. In the years since I’ve seen the ‘gentrification’ of Hackney progress further and further, with more and more young professionals moving to previously ignored areas such as Clapton. Clearly this gentrification brings many benefits. However, it has also further fractured communities. We move into these areas and they become ‘ours’. The gangs, drugs and general ‘underclass’ who are not carried along with us become enemies on the doorstep. We exist alongside them uneasily, ignoring their existence until it becomes impossible to do so. The most striking, shocking example of this was the shooting on London Fields last year in broad daylight. London Fields is, of course, now a cliche associated with hipsters and ‘yummy mummies’ but it is smack bang in the middle of an area where privilege and ‘community’ exists alongside huge deprivation, unemployment and crime. I think we’re all guilty of blinding ourselves to this and of selecting which ‘community’ we’re a part of. It’s completely understandable and it’s difficult not to feel impotent and scared when you look at the problems around but, if we’re to move forward from this in any meaningful sense, I think this is a valuable lesson to learn.
I think nowhere is this disconnect better illustrated than in one particular response I saw to the riots on Monday, when someone living in a gated block of flats high above the streets was whipping themselves (and others) into a frenzy over the prospect of riots coming to Hackney. Updates fizzled with excitement and offers of shelter from people outwith the area were rebuffed as they did not want to ‘miss’ their ‘first ever riot’. This isn’t ‘community’. This is glee at the prospect of witnessing the ‘other’ tear themselves apart for your pleasure. Inevitably, this response turned to expressions of ‘disgust’ when the clips of the inarticulate ‘scum’ began circulating and they said that rioting was ‘fun’.
I was scared on Monday. The rioting seemed to get ever closer and my boyfriend was in a car driving around London attempting to get home (in a small glimmer of positivity from all this, he was taken in and helped by some people we know who have my eternal gratitude). I completely understand the fear and the gut responses this provokes. If civilisation is to mean anything, if we truly believe deep down in the fundamental good of people, if we hold hope that each and every person deserves the chance to improve themselves, we have to resist that fear. We have to think about our responses, think about the communities we live in and the role we play. We have to think about why this has happened and try to learn from it in order to ensure it never happens again. Because, unfortunately, as long as inequality advances unchecked, materialism is valued above education and the underclass are seen as uncivilised monsters just waiting to ‘kick off’ at the first opportunity, this is going to happen again.
Last weekend I had a chat with a friend about growing up. Specifically about the moment when you accept that, in all likelihood, your life is going to be pretty average. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to hugely wealthy. You’ll make no more or less contribution to the wider world than countless other people. You’ll be one life amongst billions, forgotten in a few generations.
For some, it’s quite a big deal having this realisation. If you’ve somehow been convinced for much of your life that you’re going to be famous and/or wildly successful and/or will change the world, it could be a huge blow to your whole identity to face up to a rather more obscure and low-key life. That’s a very obvious example and it could (probably will?) be a lot more subtle than that. You could have spent decades chasing status amongst and the approval of your peers only to realise that this is always going to be just ahead of you, just beyond your grasp. We all want to feel important, after all.
During this chat I mentioned a very interesting article which I read a couple of weeks ago. Its basic point (or at least what I took from it) was that only two or three generations ago, the problem with the class system was that it made most dreams seem out of reach for the vast majority of people. Yet, it argued, what was now the case was that the class system had adapted to present different dreams as being within the reach of everybody. Dreams which didn’t threaten the system, dreams which didn’t actually further social mobility in any meaningful way. ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and countless other reality shows present images of ‘betterment’ which don’t rely on self-improvement, education and personal toil (personal as in not done for the benefit of your peers). Instead they push ‘being yourself’, even if the ‘yourself’ in question does not possess any particularly admirable qualities or character. They push a sense that the dreams they dangle could happen to anyone within a matter of weeks, if you just have the right temperament and are ‘entertaining’ enough. They push entitlement, competition and the idea that other people are obstacles or tools on your way to success - no more, no less. The qualities they elevate and enforce are a neoliberal dream of individualism and solipsism - you can make it if you just try hard enough, that’s the only force that matters and any curiosity about the wider world is foolish. Do not question how power operates. Do not question what you are told is ‘natural’. Do not question what is ‘accepted’.
I thought of all this when I saw that Vice Magazine thing about Dalston. However caricatured the characters in it were, they merely represented a wider attitude which Vice Magazine is very much a part of. This is the fetishism of ‘creativity’. In common with the above shows, stemming from the same place as them (and now reinforced by them) they present creativity as an almost supernatural quality which is possessed by a blessed view and exists in a way which can be easily seen and understood by the mere mortals around them. This is the more mundane yet ingenious version of the non-threatening ‘dream’ that is dangled in front of us. It is perhaps even more mundane than the dream of chasing wealth because at least, in the unlikely event that you become wealthy, you become a powerful player in the system (albeit one unlikely to wish to change it). ‘Success’ in being ‘a creative’ tends to be measured in a far more limited and localised way. So people scramble to be photographers, to be writers, to be actors, to be film makers, to be artists, to be creatives and so many of them don’t really have any idea why just as, 20 years ago, so many would chase money just because it was the done thing. The idea that creativity resides in every single person, that creativity can be an intensely private thing and still have value, the idea that self-improvement is perhaps the most powerful form of creativity possible - this has all been lost.
This isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t chase dreams, not at all. In growing up, however, there is huge value to be found in questioning the dreams which hang heavily in the air; value to be found in thinking about what is truly valuable both in terms of our own lives and in how we perceive others. Even if you are pursuing something that you really love, there is value and enormous freedom to be found in accepting (if indeed you must) that you are not going to be a ‘success’ at it in terms of how most judge success. Whether you are famous/wealthy/renowned or otherwise, your life is creative and your life can always be a success.
One of the people who inspired the conversation I mentioned at the start is indeed chasing one of those traditional dreams. But they’re getting older now. They have a family and the responsibilities that come with that. The ‘X Factor’ interpretation of this would be that, even if the dream has to be put on hold because of these responsibilities, you should keep chasing it and never give up. I think the grown up (and only possible happy) interpretation of that is to think how fortunate your life is that you can do something you love and have people who love you, even if you have to balance it with some things you have to do which you don’t enjoy as much as the other stuff but do nonetheless because of dignity, love, pride and a desire to always keep trying to do better. Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that, ultimately, a success?