Class Distinctions in America, Part I

America has the image of being generally middle-class, or favoring a middle-class ethos. The “common man” (or woman) is the general target for marketing, policies, aspirations, etc. We also have much more class mobility than in other cultures: the wealthy daughter of a doctor may work in a grocery store in summers in high school or the son of a CEO may deliver pizzas in college. But there is an elephant in the room that we seldom talk about in America, and that is class. Things are not so evident on the surface about class, the way they might be elsewhere. In England for example, speech immediately distinguishes a person’s education level and class background, although it is increasingly becoming “cool” to adopt various speech patterns and mannerisms that are not RP (received pronunciation, or, “The Queen’s English”). The aforementioned example of wealthy children working menial jobs would be unheard of in Asia or Latin America.

With class not so evident as it is in other countries, what distinguishes between social classes in America? What are the signifiers? Here are some thoughts, and this post will be continued in a second part.

Food. This is one of the saddest things about wealthiest country in the world. There is still hunger in America, and for those who are poor, the cheapest options are often the least healthy. Contrast this with the wealthier, food conscious individuals in America who shop at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and artisan shops for food. We have “food deserts” where people have little access to food, let alone healthy food, and children who rely on schools to provide them meals. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or “food stamps” is just little over four dollars a day per person, which is really not enough. When fast food options offer meals that are just a couple of dollars, those who have very little income would understandably opt for those. The advice to grow one’s own food is not always possible to those who live in cold or inhospitable climates. This is one of America’s greatest shames.

Healthcare. This is too complex a topic to go into in this article, but we can say that the Affordable Care Act has not yet achieved its goal of helping all Americans have affordable coverage. We need a universal healthcare plan, single payer if possible, and yet our politicians do not by and large support this plan. The poor often get relegated to community clinics with limited healthcare, and their access to specialists is even more limited. Some may opt not to even consult physicians when ill, due to fears of excessive bills. People who can afford it not only have good healthcare plans (covered by their employer), but they can have the luxury of choosing the best doctors, and even paying out-of-pocket for procedures and tests. Needless to say, wealthy and urban areas have large concentrations of highly trained and specialized doctors and medical professionals.

Spending habits. This is a highly taboo subject, and one that can potentially sound extremely classist. But there is some truth to the reason that the rich get richer, and why many people who do not have much money are in that situation due to their consumerism. I am in no way advocating trickle-down, Reaganist economics, and I personally think that class stratification is a very serious problem in America we need to address through various means such as taxation, social welfare and benefits, etc. I would like to add the caveat, though, that the working poor and people in lower-paying jobs who are indeed financially savvy and wise with their personal finances are simply not able to save and do not have disposable income. America has failed these people, and it is also another one of America’s shames.

But in terms of purely individual spending habits, I have seen that many prosperous people are extremely careful with their disposable income, saving for particular goals such as housing, their children’s education, retirement, and investing in quality rather than quantity. There is the temptation in American society to spend like mad on the latest trendy car/gadget/clothing/item, with the understanding that it keeps the economy moving. While there may be truth to this, it is often to the detriment of people’s personal finances. I grew up in a community where people were of largely (lower-) middle and lower-class SES, and when I attended Stanford University, I was quite surprised and fascinated to see that despite many of my peers being quite wealthy, they were not very materialistic in comparison to the people I grew up with. And my Stanford peers were from all around the United States and the world, thus illustrating a geographic cross-section of largely upper- and upper-middle class individuals. Certainly not everyone at Stanford was well to do, and I felt I was one of the rare, true middle-class students there. But I have noticed in living in places of different socioeconomic status that the spending habits of the well to do are certainly cautious.

This post will be continued.

Me Too: It’s Not Just Sexual Harassment

I am very delighted that the Me Too movement has brought sexual harassment out into the public sphere. I am glad that women no longer have to feel isolated and ashamed of what has happened to them. While this doesn’t minimize or eliminate the suffering of what women have endured, there is a comfort in feeling solidarity with other women, and knowing that bringing this issue out into the open is the first step in healing. And it’s not just women – there are men who have been sexually harassed too, as we have seen with the Kevin Spacey situation, and men we know in our daily lives. The Catholic Church has had a horrifying number of incidents conducted against men as well. Nobody’s body should be violated, and those who have suffered – such as the victims of Larry Nassar – have also suffered at the hands by those who enabled him as well as those who did not believe the victims. Thankfully, Lou Ann Simon chose to resign from MSU.

But I would like to address harassment against women in a more subtle manner that perhaps even affects us all, and more pervasively. And it is the issue of emotional harassment. This psychological form of mistreatment can run from microaggressions or a single hurtful comment all the way to actual abuse. At its extreme, we can see its effects in the form of manipulation by narcissists. (Think: Commander-in-Chief.) Single women endure this in the form of men they date who ghost, stonewall, blow hot and cold, and play games. Married or partnered women in serious relationships can feel stuck and in negative patterns with a mate who refuses to grow or listen. At the workplace or in professional settings, women’s ideas and contributions are sometimes ignored, or women are interrupted and not allowed to speak first. They are not taken seriously.

What do we do?

Culture is changing for young girls, thankfully. Disney has picked up on the empowerment of women, and their heroines are now better role models. There has been much done in terms of awareness and opportunities for girls and young women in STEM fields, though certainly more needs to be done. Colleges implement – and constantly have to revise – policy related to sexual behavior and the treatment of women. All of these things are extremely positive and necessary.

I would like to argue that more needs to be done in terms of mental health and cultural shifts in attitudes toward the behavior between men and women. This was a failure of the feminist revolution in my opinion, for it focused heavily on sexual activity and individual rights, rather than addressing and improving the relations between genders. Men got off the hook. Men got lazy. And worst of all – some of them even got disempowered.

This is not the fault of women; rather, it was a failure on the part of our culture to create a wider dialogue. When men saw women becoming stronger, they didn’t step up and talk about how they could be a part of the solution. They didn’t talk about what their reactions were, both positive and negative. And to be fair, some women did not allow men into the dialogue, given the painful history of mistreatment. Some of them became excessively faultfinding and created the belief that man was the enemy. The angry feminist stereotype exists for a reason, and sadly, it is what often still persists.

Some of this male resentment, I believe, has found its way out and this may be why men act out and sexually or emotionally harass women. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a great tool for angry men who are trolls. Men are not given the tools to address their feelings. Granted, men cannot, do not, and (for biological reasons) probably should not express their emotions in the same manner as women. But when we live in a culture that does not value mental health, for any gender, men are going to be even less likely to deal with their emotions in a constructive manner. When our country does not support measures for reproductive health, reproductive rights, maternity AND paternity leave, children’s health, and just overall health and well-being, how can we expect things to be healthy between men and women?

We need to develop mindfulness in our culture. Many great teachers and mental health professionals, Buddhist and otherwise, have made great strides in educating the public. When we are not at peace with ourselves, this will reflect in our relations with others, regardless of their gender. Our culture focuses so heavily on the external that it leaves very little room for internal reflection. This is probably the most toxic aspect of American culture.

Getting people to unplug from their devices, get off social media, and communicate directly with people is a first step. Allowing time for activities that encourage inner reflection and awareness is the next step. Developing a daily practice of mindfulness is, then, what must naturally follow, to integrate that into one’s life. This has to include people becoming aware of others’ negative behavior and not enabling it, and speaking up against it, or protecting people from it. Working on the reduction of guns and firearms is an external element that is a must, for it is a deadly combination to have an angry person who is not mindful and a weapon. We also need public funds for mental health.

And ultimately, I think we need to remind ourselves of that fundamental, natural human joy of men and women interacting with each other. Our culture has lost that very basic pleasure where man likes a woman because she is a woman, and a woman likes a man because he is a man. There is something very beautiful about it at the bottom of it all, it’s the oldest story in human nature, and we mustn’t forget that. That love has been the basis of so much art and culture for millennia, and will continue to be so.