Here I am in the suburbs of Chicago. Today I was at the local bank with my father. We were talking with someone he knows well there (he’s been going to the same bank for over forty years!). His contact is a White man in his early sixties who calls my dad Kris (his name is Krishnamurthy) and the last thing I’m expecting is an interesting political conversation. Much to my surprise, he asked me what I do in London and we got into a lively discussion about British politics and US politics (a lesson for me about stereotyping!). We covered the spectrum of the riots in England, Muslims in England (interestingly, he had it in his mind that all the rioters were Muslim), interest rates, unemployment, apathetic citizens, taxing the rich, and inequity. We concluded by talking about empathy, one of my favourite subjects. And this suburban banker gave me a copy of an article he had just printed out, ‘The rich are really different – and not in a good way, studies suggest.” He was wholeheartedly agreeing with the conclusions of the article, namely that wealthy people are disconnected from the rest of us – less empathic, more selfish. This all has got me thinking about a few different questions, including: How do we talk about difference without resorting to ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities? When are labels useful and when are they a hindrance? What types of actions support people to become more self-aware?
In the UK, we’ve started using the word ‘feral’ in social policy discussion. Feral means wild or untamed, and usually is used for animals. British Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke suggested the August riots were caused by a ‘feral underclass.’ Recent data shows that seventy-five per cent of the accused rioters have prior criminal records and London Mayor Boris Johnson is talking about the ‘feral criminal underclass.’ At the same time (including before the riots), self-proclaimed progressive lefties were using the term ‘feral elite’ to describe a certain type of banker, politician, and media moghul. When I first heard this, I laughed and I thought ‘heh, clever.’ But now I’m not sure.
I support the point – the idea that all the condemnations of ‘underclass’ people made by privileged people can be turned on their head – both a looter and a white collar profiteer share some characteristics: they seem, for example, to have a total disregard for the consequences of their actions on the well being of others. They seem – as the word ‘feral’ indicates- to have gone wild. A point being made is that people of privilege cannot continue to call others ‘feral’ without looking in the mirror.
As clever as it might have seemed to me initially, I’m now concerned that in using the term ‘feral elite’, progressive lefties are feeding their/our roots with poisoned soil. In an age of sound-bites and short attention spans, we want to use provocative and memorable language. Whether it is being hurled at very-privileged people or under-privileged people, to what extent do labels such as ‘feral’ open up or close thoughtful discussion? I’m inclined to think they reinforce Bullingdon tactics- for which the Prime Minister was recently criticized.
We all have the possibility to be selfish, greedy, out of control. Sometimes we are consciously so – actively seeking to be destructive and with an intent to harm others. Sometimes we have a desire to be destructive generally – usually an expression of anger, fear, or frustration – but not necessarily wanting to harm others. Sometimes, we have neither the desire to destroy nor the desire to harm – yet, trapped in mental anguish and disconnect from our inner compassion, we make choices that do both. Sometimes, we think we are doing good, when actually we are causing harm.
Back to my question “How do we talk about difference without resorting to ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities?” My answer: we talk about difference whilst remembering our potential to be that ‘other’ about whom we are talking. That profiteer could be me. That looter could be me. They – these people I do not know, have not met – are human beings who have made destructive, unethical choices. I, too, in my time have made destructive and/or unethical choices – in all three of categories set out above: knowingly and with the intent to harm, seeking to destroy something but not harm anyone, totally unconsious of the harm I was causing. Rich people have more money than I do and therefore have a different life experience from mine. What we share is the possibility to choose consciously to make an active commitment to ethical living. Or not.
If we want more people to manifest this possibility – the possibility of ethical commitment – in the future, then name-calling surely is not going to help, is it? Well, it might, if it acts as a wake up call – if someone thinks ‘Whoaa, is that me, behaving like an animal? I don’t want to be like that!” But it might also be a hindrance. It might instead feed a negative self-image or it might fuel ego, arrogance and aggression.
This brings me to my final question, posed at the start of this post: “What types of actions support people to become more self-aware?” In particular, we need people in power to become aware. Because another crucial difference between rich people and everyone else, is that the rich people have much more power – we only need to look at the levels of wealth represented in the British Cabinet to illustrate this. What seems interesting to me about the studies mentioned at the beginning of this post, is that usually it is people from the ‘underclasses’ who are researched, researched, and then researched some more. People in privileged classes, as far as I can tell, are much less researched.
In the studies where rich people have been researched, we’re learning of a lack of empathy and a disconnect from others. I’m not necessarily advocating more research – I tend to think we need less research and more communication. But I am thinking that in bandying about terms like ‘feral elite’ we are closing down opportunities to connect. What if, instead, we talked with people of the privileged classes and the economic elite and we set about to find out what makes these people tick, to understand (which isn’t the same as agreeing with) their values, beliefs, assumptions, and choices? I imagine that if we segmented our elite, we’d find that – as it is with all of us – a proportion are sleep-walking – unaware of their destructive behaviours; a proportion are afraid of losing power and privilege and consciously take steps to protect and grow their own opportunities while limiting those of others; a portion fall somewhere in between, perhaps having good intentions to be ethical, but making choices that undermine these intentions – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. If this is the case, we need different tactics for engaging with these distinct types of individual, don’t we? And we also need to remember that these different ways of moving through the world are not unique to any one type of group or people.
I’m wondering what culture is shouting out ‘feral elite’ creating? Yes, the label might stir up emotions in some ‘non-elite’ and motivate people to become more politically active. But in the long run, can we get where we want to go – a more equitable world – using such labels? I’m not sure we can.