Here’s a question – what are you about?
Seriously, give it a moment’s thought. If you were to say “this is who I am”, what would you say? To what would you reduce yourself? And please, do not think of ‘reduce’ as being in any way negative but more in the culinary sense of boiling something down to a more potent, elemental state. What punch of flavour do you bring to the pot? Bitter? Sweet? Salty? Sour?
This kind of poser perhaps draws attention to how difficult it can be to describe ourselves. Ironically, we have no such trouble describing others, especially in the briefest of forms. One or two well chosen words will usually suffice, particularly when it’s fully derogatory with no allowances made to more tempered judgement. I don’t think it will tax your imagination too long to call upon the more popular oaths habitually used amongst your peers. I say your peers because terms of abuse evolve and devolve with each generation. Where some prefer ‘doofus’ others might lean towards ‘buffoon’. One man’s ‘asshole’ is another man’s ‘arsehole’, so to speak. Some will choose more specifically descriptive terms such as ‘bread head’ (not a baker), ‘space cadet’ (not an astronaut) or ‘fruit loop’ (not a breakfast cereal). Good, evocative words. Useful in that regard. Helping us pin people down.
So, to return to our first line of enquiry – what term do you suspect others use to pin you down? A good friend of mine recently chose two simple words to put me in my place. ‘Knob end’. Very succinct. Not much room for interpretation there. Punchy. It is not how I would choose to describe myself but it was a refreshingly frank conversation starter. The friendship remains very much intact, in case you’re worried. Healthy friendships can survive such skirmishes and indeed it can sometimes be very healthy to be briefly stung by a familiar’s candour even if it merely prompts a quick stock-take of recent form. But what is it that people say about form? “Form is temporary, class is permanent.”
It means quality will tell. It means we can forgive and tolerate short-lived lapses in behaviour, fancies and follies, tantrums and tempers, when we fundamentally trust that someone is ‘okay’. That they’re dependable. Solid. Trustworthy. This is surely an animal instinct that we prevail upon to classify those in our social circle. We’re sniffing each other out to determine whether the cave floor can be shared or if we need to sleep with our eyes open. Of course we’re pretty far from cave floors these days but there are degrees of proximity that are granted to some and not to others. And fundamentally it comes down to trust. Which is very subjective because it relates to values. And what you consider admirable might be someone else’s punchline. And that same subjectivity is applied to you when you are being poked and prodded.
One person looks at you then, and they see something they like. They consider you ‘alright’. You get their stamp of approval. At the same moment that person is assessing you, you are being surveyed by another inspector who quickly leans the other way and decides you are unworthy of further consideration. You haven’t done anything different to split opinion. No soft shoe shuffle for one and thousand yard stare for the other. You were just being you but you have now been classified as being suitable for one circle and surplus to requirements for another. And this is how our little human societies stratify themselves. “You belong in this group and you belong in that group.”
Class is permanent. Is it? Class is topical. Always. It is relative. Always. And it is always subject to change. Ask the mighty. Because apparently they have fallen. But new social climbers always replace old ones. We can’t seem to stop ourselves creating and valuing hierarchies. Someone has to be top dog. Somebody else has to be the runt of the litter. But when that idea is applied to every level of society it becomes sort of meaningless. Top CEO. Top homeless guy. Top property developer. Top toilet cleaner. Top captain of industry. Top hippie. Top yogi. Top dilettante. Titles, labels, names. Classifications. Words written in felt tip marker on a cardboard box. If you had your pick of all the labelled cardboard boxes, which would you choose? That depends on what you consider most important. What you consider valuable. That will dictate what you choose to keep. To cherish. To carry forward.
That will take you closer to being able to answer the question that started this conversation. The things we value reveal the people we are. It might not explain the why but it usually demonstrates the what. Values.
What is a value, anyway? Equality. Strength. Tolerance. Compassion. Forgiveness. Persistence. Honesty. Justice. They’re just suggestions to which many others could be added. I think I’m on the right track in describing them as values. Now let me tell you what is not a value.
Status is not a value. It is a position. Does anybody say “I believe in, I stand for, status.”? I don’t think so. And be assured, when we talk about status, we are talking about the food chain. We are talking about who eats whom. Hunter and prey. Weapons can be useful in this scenario. I have an image in my head of a woman with a bullwhip. No, this is not an S&M fantasy. The woman stands in a public park in a major city in the middle of the day. There are people of all ages enjoying the green space alongside her. But none of them has a whip. So this woman enjoys a particular status. She is in a position of power. She holds a weapon while others have none. She is dangerous. She is wearing leather chaps and wields her whip with vigorous accuracy, snapping and cracking percussively in the afternoon sun. This woman is not a cowgirl. Nor is she a workforce overseer. No, much worse – she is a daft hippie. She stands in place and cracks her whip. She is happy and offending noone. Perhaps she is corralling good vibes. Who knows? To some she epitomises freedom of choice, rebellion, individuality. To others she is something more akin to a clown, a liability, an oddity.
Here is another image. A large roadside advertisement covering one side of a deluxe car showroom. The ad depicts a renowned private school from the area. In front of the school and its strolling, uniformed students, sits a deluxe brand car, gleaming and magnificent. The car seems to say “look at how I gleam! Look at my magnificence! Am I not truly wonderful?” There is a slogan on the advertisement. The name of the deluxe car comes first. Then, the clarion call to leave no one in doubt as to the horrific nature of the conflation of school and product: “The essence of _________.” The name of the school (which is also the name of the very affluent area) completes the slogan.
So, an exclusive establishment of education is screaming from the rooftops that this is what they’re about. Fancy cars. Not educative excellence. Not academic prowess. Not personal empowerment or social justice. Not education as universal emblem of personal dignity and self-esteem. No. This is nakedly, blatantly, education as status symbol. And no status symbol is about parading lesser worth. Quite the contrary, it is about being ‘better than’. This is a ‘blue chip’ school saying “this is what we’re about. This is who we are.” We are education as something gaudy. A shiny bauble with which to taunt those lower down the food chain.
These images – daft, whip-cracking hippie and corporate whore school – are not concoctions of my wilful imagination. They are real. I bear witness to them both. One of them left me bemused but it did not last, it was temporary. The other has left me with a more permanent disquiet. The hippie I didn’t know from Adam – I have no idea who she is, not profoundly, not essentially. She was just a woman with a whip, living her life. There was no evidence she was there to proselytise that day. The best of luck to her and her whip, long may they keep the crack going.
As for the school – I wish them no luck at all. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, there are some clubs of which you never want to be a member.
So, what are you about? What club do you think you belong to? And do you even care what other people say about you?