Yesterday, I tried to tell a story about what I saw on the last APDA weekend of the year, a story about debaters and debate and ideas and personal struggles and hopes and dreams and triumphs and disappointments. It was laden in my perspective and not attempting to be particularly objective – as I believe was clear throughout the 11,000+ words, it was couched in how I saw certain people and things and events and should not be taken as an objective record, any more than any piece that any individual writes, whether it’s labeled fiction or non-, should be taken as fully objective.
I actually thought when I finished it that it was too long and rambly for anyone to fully read and that it was ultimately probably going to fail at its initial objective, which was to weave a story about class background and competitive incentives into a human tale of competitive drama on the largest APDA stage of the year. For whatever reason, this self-assessment seems to be a bit short-sighted. Lots of people read the piece, in whole or in part, and (unsurprisingly) many people had objections. Fortunately, many people addressed those objections directly to me, enabling me to both fix certain things that were not intended (shortening or omitting names so that Googling someone wouldn’t lead to that post if they didn’t want it to) and to engage with people in 1:1 conversations about what bothered them, which I think was mutually informative.
But the biggest thing that kept coming up with people who wrote me seems to be essential to address on a larger scale. And because people felt the last post was at times too personal and too direct (some even called it ad hominem, which I disagree with but understand why they said that), I want to keep this post as abstract as possible so we can explore an idea rather than people specifically. Yesterday’s post was a story about people and events. Today’s post should be about an idea. The idea of class in contemporary America and how it affects people, their perspectives, and their decisions. And perhaps that’s even jumping ahead of the cart. The preliminary question, the one that many asked me, is whether class is even something we can or should talk about at all, especially on a personal level.
I felt it was important to tell the story of Nats Finals through the lens of class because that seemed to be clearly underlying a lot of the argumentation and perspectives that people were making. I feel it’s disingenuous and kind of crazy to tell the story of NDT Nats Finals without ever mentioning race, given the nature of the arguments that Emporia State made, the demographics of the participants, the larger question that the debaters themselves were asking. And I saw the same thing happening in APDA Nats Finals, especially in the context of semifinals (which is why I told the whole narrative that way); it was essential to what was happening in Hoff Theater last Sunday that there were people of privilege and people of less and it impacted their arguments and the way they made them. I want to be clear that I don’t think it necessitated the way the round played out – someone accused me of arguing that Syracuse couldn’t engage with arguments about high finance because they were from a lower socioeconomic background, which was not my intended argument. My argument was more that class struggles and conflicts and perspectives were visibly alive in the room and those things matter to how people approach daily life in this society, much less competitive debate.
So let’s back up a few steps. Is it reasonable or fair to say that class background innately impacts one’s perspective, or can? Is it impolite to even weigh income, privilege, access, and financial resources when looking at a person and how they interact with their environment? Several of you said it was. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.
I guess the first question is whether class is an immutable characteristic, something like race or gender. I don’t think that would mean that we couldn’t cite it or discuss it, but it would mean that making arguments or generalizations based on expectations of class would be more like stereotyping or saying something unfair than it would be like discussing something valid or valuable. I think it’s clear and obvious that one cannot often choose their class – one is born where one is born and one can’t choose what one is or one’s family or surroundings any more than one can choose to be male or female. So in that sense, maybe it’s a little like race or gender. But I think it’s also clear that class is, at least theoretically, flexible. One cannot have a childhood where one is Black for a while, then White, then finishes up Korean. But it is quite possible to have that kind of flexibility in terms of class and to experience a wide gradient of class standing. Many people have had this experience growing up, myself included. And certainly in childhood, that’s less about one’s own choice than the choices of others, but that flexibility separates it from being something innate about one’s identity. The older one becomes, the more clear it is that this is a changeable part of one’s identity. It’s complicated, because someone who is born into a fabulously and effortlessly wealthy family can probably never fully shed that – they probably don’t have the means or ability to spend themselves into being poor and it’s probably unreasonable to expect someone in that perspective to walk away from their family to shed their possessions and see how the other half live, a la Into the Wild. So, it’s mutable, but not always a choice. I think this puts class squarely in a gray area of sorts between race/gender and the decisions people make in their daily life. So, understandable that people feel uncomfortable, but probably not the same kind of third-rail that discussing race/gender and making assumptions based on that would be.
Next, there’s the politeness argument. I was raised, as most everyone was (I suspect), that it’s not polite to ask someone how much money their family makes. Many people just seem to have a visceral distaste for talking about people directly as though some have more money than others, however true it may be. There are two key arguments for this, I think: one, that it’s uncomfortable for the rich to have to admit that they have more access and more things and two, that it’s embarrassing for the poor to have to admit that they don’t. This argument and perspective is deeply embedded in American culture and is probably hard for people to question. But I think this argument precisely is where we get at the heart of why it’s so important to talk about class.
First of all, I would posit that this standard is impossible. There may have been versions of America with greater wealth equality or subtler ways of spending by the rich that made this standard viable or at least aspirational, but I simply do not believe that it’s possible to hide the amount of access and freedom that money buys the rich or denies the poor in modern American society, especially not in college. There are people who always stay in hotels when they travel, who always can fly wherever they want (and do frequently), who vacation in foreign countries and resorts rather than around the corner, and these people talk about doing these things in their life. And asking those people to never discuss such things is crazy and wouldn’t work. It’s their life; they should be able to talk about their expenditures of time and money. Meanwhile, others struggle to buy a dinner that’s not provided by a tournament, get uncomfortable when there are things that require money, quietly decline to participate in Secret Santa activities or other things with money as a checkpoint because they simply can’t afford it. It’s obvious to all observers why they can’t partake in these things that would otherwise excite them – some people are subtle about why this is happening and pretend they just don’t like anything, while others are open and honest about what the score is. But all make it clear to anyone paying attention why the barriers to access are where they are.
Some of these examples are about college and the debate world, but they date to times well before that. Despite being raised on a standard of not talking about these things, I couldn’t help but come back from a friend’s house in grade school and ask why someone had three game systems I’d never heard of and we were saving up money for a black and white television. My parents were always incredibly honest with me about what our standing was, especially since we went through phases of being relatively well off and then, when my parents’ business failed, not so much. But talking about it relative to others was still a bit uncomfortable and taboo. I’m old enough now to recognize this is mostly about parental self-consciousness and feeling bad about not being able to provide the same lifestyle that other children are living. But it’s not like anyone actually succeeds at preventing children from understanding, whether they discuss it or not, precisely what’s going on.
So at the point where people are going to figure out what’s happening, and something really is happening, then I would say that muzzling discussion on class in context is a form of oppression. In our society, money is freedom. Money has been used as the blanket under which everything is covered, access to everything is dependent on and proportional to money, with a few thin exceptions like voting and our crappy public education system (arguably, since there’s access to private schools, even this is just a rigid financial access question). Money affects the quality of what you get at every level, thus impacting your future abilities and access in a vicious upward or downward spiral. So the only question is whether we can confront this issue head-on in an effort to do something about it, to mollify, mitigate, or combat it in some way, or whether it proceeds unchecked and undiscussed as a silent force.
This may be a slightly extreme dichotomy I’m painting. I’m trying to proceed with this post in a robust and intellectually honest way as though someone were arguing against me. So you might say that we don’t have to discuss it interpersonally to think about it politically. That we can discuss the abstract motivations and impacts on a societal level without bringing the individuals around us and their particular place on the ladder into play. And that crossing that line is the gulf between appropriate and inappropriate discussion.
Several reasons why I think this is not a reasonable place to draw the line and why I think that’s an extension of oppression. First of all, I would analogize it to the privilege people experience from being white or male or straight or otherwise advantaged in our society. Advocates of greater equity and self-awareness everywhere regularly ask us to “check [y]our privilege.” To be aware of the subtle and omnipresent advantages one enjoys by being in a majority category or one that has traditionally enjoyed power or position. While this is not a reason to be biased against straight white males, per se, it is quite clearly to me for straight white males (or any one of those three) to consider that what they take for granted is not the experience of others and to make extra efforts to be understanding and inclusive of others who were born into a different category. And only the most defensive straight white males would be angry for being called out as belonging to those groups and being asked to consider how different it is to be otherwise.
You could argue that you can see white maleness innately, but you can’t see wealth or class. One, I think that’s laughable on face – wealth and class come out in the way one dresses, the things one does, the decisions one makes, the stuff one has, and often the way one talks about everything in society. Also, even if it’s totally cloaked, sexual orientation is also almost completely cloaked outside of witnessing relationships directly, which many people are quite successfully private about. And the thing about the “check your privilege” standard is that it’s not just something we rely on people to do for themselves. To keep people honest, it’s often important for people to say that phrase directly to each other, to remind people who take something for granted and overlook it that they’re in a different category and point out how that impacts what they’re saying or doing in the context of others. “Check your privilege,” in other words, is kind of meaningless if it’s on the honor system. It at times requires direct confrontation in order to be effective.
And maybe this is more the place of family and friends than someone further removed in order to be effective and not make someone defensive. That an outsider or someone distant asking someone to check privilege is less effective or appropriate than someone one knows will love them at the end of the day doing same. I’m mildly persuaded by that claim, but I think major public events cross the line into something owned and shared by a wider community and that discussing this privilege and the desire to check it is a wider point of access. For example, if someone straight made a claim in a Nats Final that was clearly heteronormative, I don’t think only their close LGBT friends could question them on that. I think it would be reasonable for anyone in the audience, gay or straight, to raise the issue in a public discussion.
But I also think that not talking about it is oppressive because it’s a way of pretending that it doesn’t exist. Quite simply, when it’s deemed impolite to discuss something, it’s a way of everyone pretending that things are not the way they are. And there may be places where this is in fact appropriate behavior, if the thing we’re discussing doesn’t really impact anything or would only be the source of some sort of cruel repercussion. For example, if someone had a disability or a handicap, it doesn’t seem meaningfully important to always self-awarely point this out at every turn, because the ideal is that it should not affect that person’s ability to compete or have access. However, if someone is wheelchair-bound and the round is in a place with only stairs, then it does seem reasonable to discuss. So the standard is probably where the question of background does or might affect one’s ability to compete or one’s ability to access certain things. And I would argue that class and wealth impacts literally every aspect of access. That it is so directly proportionally tied to questions of access that it is like a question of how many ramps you have for your wheelchair.
How is this the case? Well, for one, having money and a particular societal status just makes things easier. It makes it easier to have stuff, to have flexibility, to have the freedom to be unconstrained by having to work, having to sacrifice time and energy to do certain things to enable the life one wants to live. But the perspective of having money and having been acclimated to a certain class also tends to make one’s perspective on life much easier and more filled with possibility than someone at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Someone whose family lacks resources sees the world as less filled with opportunity and often has less access to opportunities than someone who is accustomed to getting what they want. And in a world where money and connections can actually often buy access, this only gets worse over time.
More perversely, in my opinion, and I understand that this is not a belief that is necessarily held by everyone who has wealth and/or privilege, the prevailing American ethos is that the people who are in higher socioeconomic positions deserve to be there. I recognize that a lot of people are trying to fight this perception at some level and that the financial meltdown of recent years did some good in combating this misperception about capitalism. But still the vast majority of Americans believe that wealth is correlated with effort and that people are rich because they worked harder than those who are not. And this is something that categorically separates issues of class, especially in America, from things like race or gender. No one would argue that someone is White and not Black because they deserve to be treated better in some way – the very typing of that text makes me cringe with how horrific and offensive it is. And yet those are precisely the types of assumptions that underpin class distinctions in society, especially for those born into their standing.
I’m not going to take the time to prove the many things about the diminished social mobility that are true of contemporary America and especially true of any society with large wealth disparities. But it’s pretty clear that mobility is highly limited in a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening daily, that this reflects the old adage of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Which innately precludes many of the poor getting richer or the rich getting poorer. And everything in such a stratified society is structured to ensure that people continue to pursue the widening of that gap. Even in a world with a couple exceptional billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, nearly all the rich will seek to enrich themselves further at the expense of the poor, while all the poor will be powerless to combat this trend, lacking the resources to do so. And even Gates and Buffett have only changed their tune in recent years after spending years in the capitalist melee trampling the little guy, be it rival businesses or consumers, so they could get ahead and enrich themselves. These are just sort of the rules of profit-driven capitalism, but they have a deep and real affect on everyone existing in the society governed by this framework.
What all this adds up to is that very few people who start out in lower or middle classes will ever reach the upper echelons of wealth. But those that do are going to likely have to play the capitalist game to do so. Which is where another aspect of class, the one I find least controversial, comes in. Which is what one chooses to do with one’s life, one’s aspirational class, if you will. Which is where the teachers get separated from the hedge fund managers.
Now I’m not trying to paint everyone working in a hedge fund with the same broad brush entirely and maybe I did a bit too much of that in my last post. You don’t have to lie, cheat, and steal to work in a profit-obsessed firm that puts no stock in human feelings or the impacts on the bottom rungs of society. However, it’s an environment where most people are fine with pushing the limits of whatever one can get away with, where most people are making decisions that create things like Enron or 2008 or bubbles or runaway compensation for people who do nothing that actually produces, creates, or enhances anything tangible in the world whatsoever. And, quite simply, it’s hard to be a good man in a bad state. It’s hard enough to care about anything in America writ large, between our distracted media and our obsession with money and our warmongering trashing of the rest of the planet. But it gets a lot harder when one self-selects into an environment where everyone else believes in the ruthless valuation of enrichment over people, values, or principles. And again, maybe not every hedge fund office or law school is like this. But most are.
And it happens insidiously, in the way that most oppression in America does. The phenomenon is all too common. Someone wants to go to law school to be one of the good guys, to stand up for the little guy. So they take out six figures of debt to cover the future education that will help them be an advocate for the good. But then they have all this debt they have to pay off, so they work in a firm for five years. And at that firm, they represent corporations using their leverage and weight and ability to afford a talented lawyer to either beat up small corporations or actual individuals, get away with violating their rights because the legal system is a place where money can often replace truth. And while they do that, they may feel conflicted or stomach-churny, but they feel the ends justify the means and they’ll make up for it standing up for the little guy someday. All the while, their entire peer group and surroundings are people with a different set of values, people who are unapologetic about their decisions, people for whom selfishness is the primary ethos. They get accustomed to this perspective, maybe tire of arguing for alternatives that feel especially hypocritical when one is representing Big Business in some capacity daily anyway. So slowly their conviction gets eroded. Meanwhile, they start getting used to a certain lifestyle, a certain amount of comfort and expectation of flexibility, mobility, access, stuff. And they start taking that for granted, having a hard time imagining going back to a harder life of sacrifice and discomfort when they and everyone they know now enjoys this comfort. So five years become ten years, twenty. Eventually they decide that it’s just easier to ride out life for the big firm and maybe donate all their riches at the end of their life to some worthy cause. Meanwhile, they continue to perpetrate the harms on the little guy they only went to law school in order to protect.
I can only imagine this story is played out even more often in hedge funds or other financial pursuits than it is law schools. And it’s pervasive in law schools and a huge part of why things don’t change in this society. The instrument of debt ensures that those few people capable of leveraging talent and ambition into social mobility are thus hamstrung by their financial disadvantages into becoming part of the machine they might otherwise change.
So, a bunch of counter-arguments probably stem from this. One is that the increased flexibility and options make it more likely that those in the higher classes actually resist the pull of debt (no need for it) and other things and are more able to think and behave independently and stick to their liberal convictions, if applicable. Maybe. I certainly think that’s possible for those who are choosing to avoid lucrative professions altogether. Certainly there are people who are well-off who intend to become public high school teachers or join the Peace Corps or TFA or work for lower wages in a non-profit. And those people are commendable for these choices. But the fact that those who are not pursuing these things are not seems to me like valid grounds for discussing or criticizing people who instead choose to be all about the Benjamins.
Another argument is simply to question everything I’m saying about the system of American capitalism and say there’s nothing wrong with it, that rising tides float all boats and that growth and positive change stem from everyone ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest. It’s hard for me to engage with this argument because I find it so laughable and frustrating, but this may be at the core of the class issues I’m trying to illustrate. It’s easy to argue about engines of American capitalism and quality of life standards from the top. It’s a lot harder to do this from the streets of the Tenderloin in San Francisco or other drug-addled gang-ridden neighborhoods for whom opportunity is a four-letter word. Economics is ultimately a zero-sum game and the pursuit of profit and greed creates vast inequities for those at the bottom that requires either starvation and deprivation or a massive government safety-net to try to keep those people alive. The quality of life and standard of living for most Americans has actually declined in the last five decades, since these things are mostly on a relative scale. You can watch things like this super-popular and insightful viral video to get a better sense of what I’m talking about. People rarely have any real conception of how great the wealth divides are in this country and how meaningfully that detracts from the life of the vast majority of people. And the culprit is not just capitalism, but unchecked faith in capitalism.
The final argument against what I’ve been saying actually takes me back to another debate round, another one involving Harvard that was the final round of a title tournament, one that was everything the Nats Final was not. This one featured C. and Josh, mentioned in the earlier post and here vaguely anonymized per their request, against a team from Hart House, the University of Toronto’s debating society. The resolution was not chosen by the competitors as it was a “tight-link” tournament where the competition provides the topics, but I was told later that the four competitors were all debating for the sides they personally passionately believed. This was the 2013 North American Championship, and the resolution was that a humanitarian should choose a field where they will make the most money possible and donate money to charity rather than working directly for a less lucrative pursuit in a non-profit.
This round was excellent, and a clear win for Harvard on Gov. And while I have a lot of respect for the Hart House team, I think a lot of why they dropped was that they missed some of the best counter-arguments to the perspective endorsed in the resolution. They did question whether one will still donate as much money after a time or whether they will become disaffected and uncaring, to which Harvard responded by saying this was against the terms of the resolution. And I think that’s half of the best argument. But I think the larger problem is whether one will still care about charity at all after a certain amount of time lived in a world where most other people are ruthless selfish capitalists. Both sides in that round agreed that this would be the ethos of most of those surrounding someone in such a lucrative profession. And at that point, I think it’s even less about getting accustomed to a certain standard of living or expectation of comfort. It’s about being peppered constantly by a peer group that tells you, no matter how liberal and generous you are, that you deserve all your money, that you are better than other people, and that you should just be in it for you. That’s one of the biggest problems with these class environments and how they self-select for ensuring that people are, first and foremost, guardians of inequality and the societal structures that perpetuate it.
Undoubtedly, not every class environment perpetuates this. Of course there are exceptions. In talking about phenomena, one must sometimes generalize in order to be talking about anything; otherwise the conclusion of every statement or post or article would be “Well, sometimes this but sometimes also that; things are complicated! Let’s go get a sandwich.” I would rather err on the side of something sweeping and thought-provoking that offers a direction than contemplative sandwich-eating while marveling at the world’s complexity. This is, after all, my blog.
But I think most class environments do perpetuate the things outlined above because it’s just much harder for people from privilege to be aware of it constantly, to consider how their advantages affect others, and to constantly question or rail against everyone in their environment telling them that they deserve these advantages. And these privileges probably transcend the socioeconomic, though I think they’re most pernicious there. Surely an outsider to debate might question the entire enterprise as us pressing our intellectual advantage and elitism at the expense of those unlucky enough to be born with such talents.
But that’s precisely where I disagree and why I think it’s so important for debate to be pro-intellectual but class-mitigatory (and -aware). Because debate and public speaking and rational thought are things that can be taught. Anyone from any level and any background can learn these things and be good at them. Many have disbelieved me about the truth of this statement and I would like to think that I’ve helped to prove them wrong to the extent that I’ve had any success at all on the circuit as a debater or a coach. And, unlike the pursuit of wealth or privilege, the pursuit of knowledge and rhetorical skill are more or less unmitigated goods. We would prefer a world where everyone tried to press their talents and intellect to the highest reaches. We would not prefer a world (or I wouldn’t at least, and I don’t think you should either) where everyone based all their decisions off of profit maximization and tried to edge each other out on those grounds.
And I know many representatives of Harvard in the prior post would then say that their case was trying to be intellectually challenging and stimulating. I believe that many of them sincerely felt this was the case. A lot of what I was trying to do in yesterday’s post was illustrate sufficient context to show why many many people did not feel that way. Which has to do with history and tactics as well as class. Without 2005 and 2012 as backdrops, there’s no way that 2013 would have been perceived the way it was.
So all of that prompts a question about where the lines of what intellectual rigor is and isn’t, how much access people should have and knowledge and ability to keep up with speedier discussion and all that. I’m not looking to entirely rehash yesterday so much as explicate some of the more controversial stuff and why I went there. So we’ll leave that for another time and it’s probably better placed in quieter 1:1 discussions.
My point is merely to say that we all know class is there. We can all see its vast manifestations, how it comes across in the sense of entitlement and privilege of many people, the access they have, the expectations they have about their future and how they contrast with others with different upbringing. And this diversity of background, in the right attitude, is an asset to be celebrated and explored and examined carefully. One of the great things about APDA is that it does bring people, like the best college experiences, from widely differing monetary (and other) backgrounds together and shoves them forward into a marketplace of ideas. But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we ignore this diversity or deem it impolite to discuss, even in its personal manifestations. It is the failure to question profit as an end-all and be-all motive that has enabled the vast escalation of wealth disparity in our society. If we fail to point out how class colors our perspectives and access now, we are only magnifying the harms of past mistakes and dooming ourselves to a future where we can’t consider or correct the increasing divides between us.