What’s in a sneer? Part 2: The Salary Class

You are hired by a scientific researcher to help out with an experiment. Two people will be brought into a room and will answer a series of pattern recognition problems. The participants will carry out the test on separate computers. They will be asked the same question at the same time and will have a fixed time to answer. They should not collaborate with each other. A light is set up in front of each candidate. It will flash green if they answered correctly and red if they didn’t. Your job is to see who gets more green lights and record the results.

Now, let’s imagine one pair of participants. Candidate 1 gets every question right. Candidate 2 gets every one wrong. Candidate 1 is clearly the better of the two and you record that result. But now something funny happens. Candidate 2 gets upset. She starts calling Candidate 1 an idiot. She calls the questions stupid. She even turns and accuses you of being dumb before storming out of the room. Whatever you think of her and her attitude, you don’t take her outburst seriously. She can’t be so blind not to see that Candidate 1 totally outperformed her. For every question she got wrong, Candidate 1 got it right. Her claims are ridiculous.

This story is analogous to what has occurred on both social and traditional media throughout the current US presidential campaign. As I write this, Donald Trump has just won with a double digit spread in the South Carolina primary after what is now a good 7 or 8 months of consistent performance in full view of the public. Despite Trump’s outstanding results in the polls and at the ballot box, there are still no shortage of people saying how dumb he is. He’s still just one “mistake” away from losing the race. When the Pope comes out with a criticism, even died-in-the-wool atheists implore that THIS time Trump’s done for. These same people have been making these same claims since the beginning of Trump’s campaign. Time after time they have got it wrong while Trump has gone from strength to strength.

The kind of behaviour displayed by both Candidate 2 and the people who are still mocking Trump is symptomatic of cognitive dissonance. When “the real world” contradicts our mental model of it we experience something that is very similar to physical pain. Just like with physical pain, we take action to try and avoid the feeling. As cognitive dissonance is a mental phenomenon, our reaction usually takes the form of thoughts and words. Individual responses to cognitive dissonance vary, but lashing out and blaming others is certainly common. We’ve all met the person who takes out their frustrations on those around them.

In my post prior to this one I outlined what I believe is a case of systemic cognitive dissonance. I made the claim that the sneering of the Wage Class was rooted in a fundamental unanswered question of economic justice that occurs at the heart of modern organisations. A question about “undeserved” rewards flowing to the Salary Class at the expense of the Wage Class. The uncertainty caused by this unanswered question causes cognitive dissonance which in turn finds an outlet in mockery directed at the Salary Class.

Knowing that the sneering of the Wage Class is rooted in cognitive dissonance, we can apply the same method to track down the root cause of the sneering of the Salary Class.

Let’s go back to the example I presented in the last post. Tom has been freshly promoted to the Salary Class. I made the claim that Tom would not be able to explain his promotion in economic terms. He wouldn’t be able to answer the challenges of his old workmates that the Salary Class are “overpaid latte drinking bludgers”. No doubt, as Tom begins his new role he will be very curious to find out whether it is true that his new job is cushier or whether he and his workmates had been wrong in their judgement. Maybe they had missed something. Maybe the Salary Class do in fact work harder.

Tom will almost certainly find that salaried work is indeed easier. He will realise that his new position does in fact require less (real) work for more pay. The unanswered question of economic justice will remain and it will cause cognitive dissonance for Tom just as it had for his workmates. Just like them, we can expect Tom to try to alleviate this cognitive dissonance.

There is, however, a crucial difference between Tom and his old workmates: Tom’s economic interests are now aligned with his new role and new identity. He has already been promoted and can expect further promotions and pay rises if he performs well and pleases his new colleagues and superiors in the Salary Class. Tom is therefore predisposed to find a narrative that puts a positive spin on events. That narrative will need to explain why he “deserves” the rewards that have been bestowed on him. He will tell himself that he is smarter or more skilful or more hard working than the others. It is because of those factors that he got promoted.

[At this point I should note that there is no reason why this story can’t be true. Maybe Tom is smarter and more hardworking. Maybe he isn’t. The point is simply that neither Tom nor his workmates are primarily concerned with the truth. Their stories are designed to alleviate cognitive dissonance. Those stories “work” to the extent that the cognitive dissonance is overcome].

At this point we can see the origins of the Salary Class sneer. Tom’s story is that he is smarter or more capable than the others. It logically follows that they are dumb(er) and less capable. This latent factor will probably remain dormant until such time as Tom is provoked by the others eg. when they mock him for being a bludger. Furthermore, his workmates now have a different explanation of his promotion than he does.  More importantly, it is a story that undermines his position, his identity and his economic interests. It’s a story that Tom cannot agree with. Therefore, they must be dumb. That is what dumb people do: they come up with stories that don’t fit the world. This all follows quite naturally from the situation as described. It is from these origins that the ideological sneer of stupidity arises.

Of course, not every individual case of class distinction is formed in such a “natural” fashion. Over time these distinctions harden into institutions and cultures which perpetuate the story. One of the most important of these is education. An entire system set up to rank people with the “best” jobs as incentives to those who play the game well. However, as G K Chesterton pointed out, the origin of our education system was also economic in nature. In the late 1800s, the number of jobs was shrinking and children and teenagers were increasingly unable to find work. This was causing social unrest and compulsory education was a way to keep kids off the street (and also reduce the influence of the church). Ivan Illich has also pointed out the ideological underpinnings of education. Indeed, it’s probably not too far fetched to say that the education system is the primary ideological battleground of our society.  It also play a key role in perpetuating the economic underpinnings of the class system.

In any case, there is a conclusion: the root cause that gives rise to the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction is economic. Out of the unanswered question of economic justice and the cognitive dissonance that it engenders, two very different stories arise and eventually become entrenched. This state of affairs can continue on for a very long time. In the more fatalistic cultures it can even be reified into religion. But just as these stories began from the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, when those stories are publicly challenged the gates of cognitive dissonance are re-opened. The clue that this is has happened is to be found in outbursts of sneering, mockery and condemnation. Just as Candidate 2 lost the plot in our imaginary story, so the Salary Class has lost it over Donald Trump.

I’ll return to this point in the third (and final) post of this series.


What’s in a sneer? Part 1: The Wage Class

Our myth of social class in Australia is that, if class exists at all, it’s something you can move through freely. We regularly hear of the aspirationals who want to rise through the classes (never of people who drop back down). The implication is that class is something you choose, not something you’re born with. That is the myth.

In this post I want to write about class but not in the usual terms. Instead of defining class by how much you earn, I’m going to define it by how you earn. And instead of discussing the usual factors related to class, I’m going to talk about a very specific behavioural characteristic that has no necessary connection with class but which I think illuminates something important about it: the act of sneering.

Both of these distinctions are inspired by a recent blog post by John Michael Greer. Greer cites four basic ways to earn your income: wages, salaries, investments and government welfare. In this post, I’lI limit my discussions to the two of these that I have the most experience with: wages (the Wage Class) and salaries (the Salary Class).

In his post Greer also remarks about how much of what counts for political discussion in modern America is nothing more than sneering. That has certainly been true of Trump’s candidacy. The sneering and mockery on twitter and even from supposedly reputable news services has been a sight to behold. Otherwise intelligent people have gone to town with such a variety and volume of ad hominem attacks that would have had Aristotle crying into his soup. This public mockery reminded me of something similar I had heard before in the workplace and that is what got me thinking about the Wage Class and the Salary Class as they relate to sneering. I want to suggest the following distinction:-

  • When the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class, it is almost always on economic grounds.
  • When the Salary Class sneers at the Wage Class, it is almost always on ideological grounds.

Let me give an example to demonstrate the first point. While I was at university I took some part-time labouring work in a small manufacturing company. Throughout the day, deliveries and pickups of various items would be made. Usually this was done by couriers and truck drivers but occasionally a smartly dressed type would come by to drop off or collect some smaller item and have a chat with one of our salaried people. One particular workmate of mine, let’s call him Bob, would never fail to make some kind of derogatory remark about the new arrival. One of Bob’s favourite epithets was “arse scratcher”. “Better go help this arse scratcher unload his ute” he might say.

Although Bob was more enthusiastic in his mockery than most, his remarks were in no way uncommon. Go to any factory floor around the country and you won’t have to wait long to hear something similar. The attitude of the Wage Class to the Salary Class can be summarised as “latte drinking overpaid bludgers.” The Salary Class sit around talking and drinking coffee instead of doing “real” work and they get paid more than they deserve. Contribution versus reward. This equation is a fundamental of economic justice and this is what I mean when I say that the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class on economic grounds.

Now here’s the key point: the Wage Class are perfectly entitled to raise this issue of economic justice. There is a lot of prima facie evidence on their side.

Shuffling paperwork, sending emails and taking phone calls is quantitatively less (real) work than lifting, moving, grinding, painting, sanding, drilling or whatever tasks get done on the factory floor. This is true in the physics sense of Force being applied to Objects. Less energy is expended by an office worker than by a labourer or skilled tradesman. There is a basic, everyday sense in which office work simply requires less effort.

This point is uncontroversial. The next point is not.

In a small manufacturing company, the office work is subsidiary to the factory work.

A manufacturing business does not make its money from shuffling paperwork and sending emails. It makes its money from manufacturing stuff. That happens on the factory floor. The workers on the factory floor understand this perfectly well. They are entitled to wonder why it is that one gets “promoted” to a job which appears to generate less value for the company.

These are the issues which lie behind the sneering of the Wage Class. There are important unanswered questions of economic justice that lie right at the heart of the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction and these occur right down the factory floor.

Because these distinctions have been entrenched in society, the original issues are no longer openly discussed. It is this obfuscation which allows the system to be perpetuated. The following thought experiment should demonstrate how this happens:-

Let’s assume there are five guys working together on the factory floor in wage class jobs (I’m going to keep this example to males because I think the kind of behaviour I’m describing is more typically male and it also allows me to sidestep the messy issue of entrenched sexism).

One guy, let’s call him Tom, gets a promotion.  He’ll now move to a managerial position overseeing factory operations (eg. a foreman). He gives up his work on the tools and starts organising, reporting and otherwise supporting the others on the factory floor. What will be the response from Tom’s four workmates to his promotion? I can say with absolute certainty from my experience that Tom will be on the receiving end of some (mostly) good-natured mockery. The more office-like the new job, the more mockery he can expect. And if Tom shows up in a shirt, pants and leather shoes, he can expect a double helping. This mockery will take the form I have described above. Tom is now one of the latte drinkers and he can expect to hear about it in no uncertain terms.

How will Tom respond to their mockery? Will he defend himself? What arguments would he make in his defence?

The key point to be made is that he won’t defend himself. He’ll just take it on the chin. He might make some kind of deflecting statement such as “well, it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it” or “if you guys pick up your game you might be able to follow in my shoes one day.” But what he won’t do is tell his old workmates that they are wrong. He won’t claim that he will now be working harder and that his new job will be more important than theirs.

It is this obfuscation, this refusal to address the underlying issue that perpetuates the system. Even Tom, a guy who only recently would have joined in the mockery of the Salary Class, will not address it. Even if he wanted to defend the promotion, he probably wouldn’t know how.  He might try to quote some economic theory or other to justify it but it is highly likely that he simply couldn’t explain it if he was asked to do so.  It is because the underlying issue of economic justice is not addressed that Bob will go on referring to anybody in a suit and tie as an “arse scratcher”. It is why you can go on to pretty much any factory floor and feel a constant undercurrent of resentment. It is why the Wage Class sneers are almost always economic in nature.

As for Tom, from now on his career prospects are decided by how well he answers to his superiors in the Salary Class and not by whether his old Wage Class friends respect or support him. You can expect his relationship with them to weaken and, if he handles it clumsily, may deteriorate to outright animosity. This is something I have seen with my own eyes. Eventually, Tom may take up a firm identity as a member of the Salary Class and, according to my claim above, he will begin sneering back at the Wage Class on ideological grounds. How this journey happens is something I will address in my next post. In doing that, I hope to come back around to Greer’s point and shed a bit more light on why Donald Trump has tapped into such a rich vein of frustration among the Wage Class in America and why he consistently draws such outright mockery from the Salary Class.


Garden update: summer solstice 2015

First proper growing season for most of the new plantings.  Apples, pears and passionfruit by far the best performers.  The olives started to show growth after the solstice which is interesting.  The pinkalicous did most of it’s growing from late winter to mid spring while the A4 macadamia showed little growth.  The avocados have been disappointing as has the pineapple guava.