Last night I finally got around to reading this piece on ‘scripted reality shows’ and my heart sank when, almost inevitably, Paul Flynn’s defence of them began with:
You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they’d make deathly dull TV and wouldn’t want to be on it, anyway.
Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life.
and celebrating that:
In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people.
The instant recourse to ‘snobbery’ and class as a defence of the shows is something I have heard time and time again, despite being one that falls apart even in the hands of its user. Flynn acknowledges that Made In Chelsea is about ‘Posh West Londoners’. Is Flynn arguing that these shows are only hated by ‘middle-class’ people with a snobbery about both working-class people and ‘posh’ people?! You would hope not, since such a position would be incoherent.
The bottom line of the argument is quite clear: these shows portray working-class people being working-class, and if you dislike them you are a class snob. It’s like some perverse rhetorical game of Quidditch with ‘working-class’ as the Golden Snitch – whomever manages to claim it most effectively instantly wins the argument (does referencing Quidditch make me a snob?!). It’s a pernicious tactic which is used in many different spheres of life. As the recent media brouhaha has neatly demonstrated once again, the tabloids excuse the nastier elements of what they do with an appeal to the ‘ordinary/working-class person’ who apparently wants to read everything they print. When Hugh Grant appeared on Question Time and eloquently demolished the morality of the tabloid media, he was asked ‘Who are you to tell ordinary people what to read?’ (Grant’s response of ‘Who is Murdoch to tell us who to vote for?’ was a brilliant reposte, quickly revealing that such demagogic arguments are invariably a smokescreen for the influence and interests of the powerful.) Again, the bottom line is clear: if you criticise the tabloids printing dubious stories about celebrity affairs etc, you are attacking the working-class and are a snob (and again, it’s not an argument which really holds together given the strong middle-class readership of papers like the News of the World).
It’s a frequent argument in politics too. Usually it is again used to mask and defend the interests of the powerful, even if well-intentioned. The current project of ‘Blue Labour’ is a perfect example. It summarises its appeal to the working-class as “faith, family and flag”, arguing that this community is fundamentally conservative and Labour should defend its interests and identity. I won’t write an essay on Blue Labour here but suffice to say that its appeal to working-class conservative is implicitly an appeal to a white working-class (though of late this has become rather explicit, with Glasman’s courting of the EDL and recent demand to stop immigration). The way it speaks about this community has the air of people who haven’t met a working-class person in decades telling everyone else what they think and relying on the Golden Snitch argument to undermine any and all criticism. No real evidence is offered for this working-class conservatism. The spectre of organisations like the BNP is wheeled out as justification, conveniently ignoring the fact that research suggests that there is no correlation between being working-class and supporting the BNP, and that it in fact it is the lower middle-class who are most represented in its supporters.
When did everyone become so scared of criticising anything that is perceived as working-class, to the extent that quite indefensible ideas go unchallenged for fear of being labelled a ‘snob’? Isn’t it more malign to argue that the vacant, self-obsessed characters (of all classes) typical of scripted reality represent the working-class and that any educated person attacking this is a snob? The implication here is that working-class people cannot be educated, eloquent and engaged without somehow being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication with the tabloid argument is that you cannot be working-class and try to be moral and/or believe that much of the substance of tabloid ideology is debasing and damaging without being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication of the Blue Labour argument is that you cannot be working-class and believe that racism and bigotry in working-class people is their own responsiblity, and inexcusable, without being a class traitor. This is drivel.
We should not be fighting to ‘level down’ by romanticising stupidity, bigotry and prurience as working-class ‘qualities’. They cut across class boundaries and they are open to criticism wherever they may be found. We also should not be fighting for a world where ‘working-class’ is romanticised to the point where everyone is scared to criticise anything which identifies with it – especially other working-class people, the vast majority of whom do not watch scripted reality shows, do not read the News of the World and do not vote for extremist parties.
I am unasamedly working-class, grew up in a working-class community and had (and continue to have) many working-class friends. I think education is a good thing. I think being engaged in the world around you is a good thing. I think believing racism and bigotry is wrong no matter where it is found is a good thing. Am I typical of the working-class? Maybe I am…some would say I’m not. Am I a snob? If you believe that, I think it says more about your own attitudes to class than anything else.