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.