The Mystery of Classism
By Bryan Caplan
My colleague Don Boudreaux stands accused of being a snob. He said:
Service-sector jobs are the most desirable. Until his retirement, my dad had a manufacturing job: he worked as a welder in a shipyard. Like most parents, his dream was for his children to become doctors or lawyers and the like — that is, he longed for his children to work in the service sector. Ever hear a parent say “I want my boy to grow up to be a pipe-fitter!” or “My dream is for little Suzy one day to operate her very own sewing machine in a clothing factory!”?
This in turn peeved a reader:
As a matter of fact, there are quite a few people who would be proud to see their sons grow up to be pipefitters. Machinists, welders and electricians too. They would be proud to see their son not only become a pipefitter, but to own his own truck and be an independent pipefitting contractor… It is decent, honorable work, despite your pompous drivel.
Don makes the obvious replies. But I still don’t get the complaint.
I ate out with a friend — someone proud to call herself a Massachusetts liberal — and the waitress got her order wrong. My friend said, “Well, if she was smart, she wouldn’t be a waitress.”
Why are we supposed to be appalled? I’ve got four hypotheses.
Hypothesis #1: The statement is intended as an exceptionless claim – i.e., “No waitress is smart.”
Problem: Ordinary English doesn’t work that way. Almost all statements of this sort are intended as statistical generalizations, not universals.
Hypothesis #2: The implied statistical generalization is false.
Problem: When you check stereotypes against objective statistics, they’re usually true. In fact, people often seem to be touchy precisely because they’re true. If you mocked the intelligence of mathematicians, we’d be puzzled, not offended.
Hypothesis #3: It’s about manners, not truth. Sure, we all know that these statements are true statistical generalizations, but they’re still rude to say.
Problem: We can avoid saying specific hurtful things to specific people, but even that’s not easy. To avoid hurting the feelings of people who are eager to read insults into any generalization is virtually impossible. And even if it weren’t, what’s wrong with a person who searches for personal affronts where none were intended?
Hypothesis #4: There is no reason to be appalled.
P.S. On Class Matters’ main page, they summarize a couple of papers on the differences between the Professional Middle Class and the Working Class. The showcased research and the maligned “Classist Comments” are amazingly consistent. The main difference: The former are deferential, the latter are blunt.