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Talmbout condescension

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

A shitty first draft, as per.


I was talking to - well, tweeting at - an online friend the other day (remember non-online friends? me neither) and I said someone should write an essay on condescension. He said that I should do it, so I have to revise that ‘friend’ status come to think of it. I wasn’t sure I could. Still not sure to be honest, but the more I thought about it the more I thought I should try. The clincher was a conversation with my friend Bea, but I’m getting ahead of myself.


I don’t know how to start this thing. Anything really, but this thing more so. I was going to say “it’d be easy to start with my own class resentments” but it isn’t. They’re in no short supply, to be sure, and so easy to have in mind, and easy to swear about with specific friends with whom I share a common horizon of life experience, especially if we’re talking over drinks, but writing’s different. It didn’t used to be different. I used to write zines, and wrote them in the vernacular I spoke mixed with smart shit from the nerd books I read. This got easier as I got to be a better writer in college from writing a lot more and it got harder as I realized how much more ground there was to cover to being a Writer, ground harder to cover because saying I wanted to Be a Writer felt like a dick move - who speaks about themselves in capital letters? who wants to be fancy? - and because while I slowly added more smart shit from the nerd books I was reading in college, I got less comfortable writing in my every day voice. I lost that voice to some degree, filled in some of the gaps with punk records and music zines and activist terms. I don’t mean to authenticity-monger, the voice that went away was no more the real me than any other - voice is like clothes, I’m me in jeans and in anything else I’m wearing, I dunno, shorts or some shit, but some clothes you wear to a job interview, see? Or to meet your partner’s parents - some clothes, some voice, they’re about closing a distance, or begging someone to throw you a rope and pull you across that distance. That distance opened up in some areas of my life over the course of how my life changed as I went through higher education. It wasn’t always there. It came and went. It mostly went in the years I was out of school, working and going to punk shows and antiwar marches, mostly.


It came more after I went to grad school, and in two important areas - I noticed the distance between me and people in academic settings, not always, just sometimes, and tried to bridge it, or get pulled across it. This came on a lot worse after finishing grad school, because in the process higher ed and the things higher ed gatekept swelled up, pushed out whatever the rest of my life used to be. I had three kids in that time too, a reality that fed that ballooning. The other distance, which has come back in the last few years for me as I’ve settled in to a neighborhood and bought a house, is a distance between me and people outside higher ed. It’s codeswitching really, learning to talk in order to fit in. Outside my job I don’t generally tell people what I do for a living, I find it slightly... I was going to say embarrassing but it’s not quite that. Awkward, maybe. I’m around people a lot for whom, I think, my being an academic puts me up a step from them on a status hierarchy and simultaneously down a step on another - you know the stereotypes about professors (and they’re mostly true...!)


Status isn’t it. It’s really just the distance again. It’s not the vertical move up or down a step that I care about so much as that the step is a step away, another distance to have to close. It gets tiring. And I get looks sometimes when people find out what I do, like ‘wait, YOU’RE a professor?’ Not in a discounted way - I’m an older straight white guy, I don’t get the bullshit that my colleagues do who are younger, queer, women, people of color - so much as in a sense that, well, I’ve had a couple neighbors say in a surprised tone that I seem really down to earth. It’s fine, none of it’s a big deal, I just don’t like the distance.


I’m losing the thread here. Condescension. Yes.


When I was young and first learning to codeswitch I’d sometimes talk college in the wrong settings and it would come off condescending to people I knew who didn’t talk college. That was intensely painful both for, again, the distance, plus having made someone uncomfortable, plus having someone think about me that I would do so deliberately in that particular way. Accidental condescension, I guess one could call it. I think a lot of condescension is like that, accidental, habitual, failure to think.


I think being on the receiving end of condescension long enough can lead to an excess of self-awareness, paying attention to one’s self in a way that... like... hmm, I’m fumbling.


Say life’s a stage, we’re all extras. Accidental condescension is spotlighting yourself, stepping into the light on purpose with others as the backdrop you pop out of. The excessive self-awareness is a mental spotlighting in a different way, thinking too much about your particularity - am I moving in line with the ensemble? am I singing off-key? - and losing some of the sense of participation in a common horizon of experience.


Are those words okay to use? Will I get the job? Will my neighbor still think of me as another regular person in the neighborhood? There’s distance on either side, wrong words and you fall into either one, or get left here, a small stupid island.


I said I lost the thread but I think I haven’t found it yet. Little by little, we’ll get there (this is me faking it in hopes of making it).


So far this is mostly minor twinges resulting from a life on the edges of condescension - to mix the metaphor, I’ve rarely if ever gotten it with both barrels, but what do I even really mean? Here’s what’s been on my mind.


I repeatedly have seen or heard people speaking on behalf of ordinary working class people in a way that suggests those ordinary people are not complex, multifaceted people who the speaker thinks of as peers or people who the speaker is in any dialog with. The Charles Kerr translation of The Internationale says something like, “we want no condescending saviors to rule us from their judgment hall.” Condescending saviors talk with their peers, sometimes fight with their peers, and treat working class people as pawns in those fights, sometimes the stakes of those fights, objects of conversation. There are so many examples it’s hard to pick one. I also don’t want to pick one because at the end of the day I don’t hate the condescenders, I hate their condescension. In the moment of experience I might want to shout profanity but the anger cools and I just feel tired, and if I’ve dropped an F bomb on someone I feel moreso. The tiredness accumulates the more I’m in spaces where this happens and not in other spaces to let it out. I was in those spaces more once, in labor movement-adjacent activist spaces populated by people from similar backgrounds. I hope to be again eventually, lifecourse and luck permitting. It gets tiring as well because explaining it closes one kind of distance, that resulting from other people’s accidental condescension, and it opens another, that which makes me want to point this out and talk about it at all. What’s the computer’s line in War Games? Something like ‘a strange game, the only winning move is not to play.’ Having to deal with condescension, there’s only losing moves really, because only losers get condescended to, and only the most unhappy self-lacerating people truly want to win over the people who called them losers and be welcomed by them.


I’m a first gen college student who ended up getting a PhD. I’ve run into a lot of condescension but this life experience of mine is not always immediately visible, as far as I know, so I’ve more been in the room around condescension than explicitly subjected to it. That’s been bad enough, and I’m aware others get it far worse. “What a stupid world,” wrote a poet, of sorts.


I think there’s also a significant element of condescension built into a lot of teaching, so my having been to more schooling meant more of this. Jacques Ranciere wrote a lovely book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, that can be read as saying this. He talks about styles of teaching where a student claims to disagree and the teacher says, “no, you misunderstand, you are not qualified to disagree, I’ll tell you when you understand and at that point you will be permitted to disagree.” Now, people can disagree predicated on misunderstanding, but the point is that there is a kind of move that says you don’t know yet, so sit down and shut up, and hearing it enough times can lead to it being internalized so that the best starting position comes to feel like seated and silent, except when qualified and called on by another to stand and speak. I also think that who gets told to sit down and to stand and speak, in what tones, and for what reason, varies a lot by various demographic social lotteries - the condescension of that style of education (Ranciere calls it stultification) is not evenly distributed.


Stultified and spotlit in my own mind I think about how I think so often about and to a significant degree through song lyrics, punk songs mostly. I’m going to be 45 soon and I find myself talking about DIY punk stuff I was in and around as a teenager and early 20something with a frequency and an intensity that embarrasses me - opens up another distance! plus also it feels very Al Bundy, cue “Glory Days.” That stuff was a deeply formative experience for me in part because it was a place where the cultural hierarchies were slightly differently organized - punk was full of condescension, but there were onramps to places that were gatekept in other areas of life, there were resources to laugh at authority figures, validate one’s self - and while I could be wrong (“I could be wrong” is a thing I say a lot and think even more, I think it’s a reverberation of condescension, among other things, but I could be wrong), I get the impression that people who were moved by fancy shit in their fancy lives tend to be less embarrassed about their formative influences. Like, there’s quotable works that impress or let you in the right rooms, and then there’s quotable works that don’t - I feel like this is basic high culture/low culture kinda shit but I could be wrong I could be wrong I could be wrong.


This isn’t working, veering too close to, orbiting too much around class resentment, which is itself fine and good (and around socialization into inhibition, and that’s part of what condescension does, one of the things it does, it tells you to shut the fuck up but often in a more high flown tone where there’s plausible deniability to others and self doubt - did that just happen? that happened right? tell me that happened and I’m not making this up - and the result is first that you learn to shut the fuck up, to tell yourself to shut the fuck up, to wonder if you made it all up and maybe no one actually shut you down like that in the first place and it’s just in your head; it’s all to tiring, it takes so much time and energy; everything you try to do feel like a prologue to, a shitty first draft of - about 1800 words now, pathetic! - the thing you’d hoped to say but haven’t, aren’t sure you can, aren’t sure is worth it) but those things are adjacent to the point, effects and tributaries - if this was my shitty anonymous substack I’d stop right here and laugh it off, haha I quit on purpose because I didn’t mean any of it and it doesn’t matter anyway (the same instinct at low grade bravado comes out in dropping in profanity), a fake easy out, you can’t spell “smile” without “lies,” but here I persevere, not sure why - when the real issue on my mind is this:


I suspect condescension is a posture one takes to people one treats as objects. You condescend to someone you’re going to do something to, or could anyway. There’s explicit condescension in a variety of forms, many of them bigoted, and many contested to varying degrees. I suspect that in the longer span of history these involved religious claims - those closer to God are better, all stand where God put them, kinda thing, followed later by biological claims, followed later by cultural claims about difference plus claims of expertise and training. And there’s a condescension of absence: nowhere for people like YOU to stand, something in the subtext but not noticed explicitly by anyone officially involved - hence you’re the asshole if you point it out. And there’s are implicit assumptions of and consensuses on explicit condescension that goes unsaid, a chummy ‘we’ who are all alike and so don’t have to be spotlit unwillingly in a way that particularizes any of us. What I’m fumbling for in these last two types is that some people condescend without knowing they’re doing so. Condescending saviors do that, as do people cosplaying as such.


The far right’s condescension is worse, genuinely bloody, and there are forms of condescension written into institutions. I wrote a book on employee injury and the law thereof which could be read as about that. Some of us are material for others’ purposes, human resources, the second word all basically erasing the first in any meaningful sense: employee means those who are employed, those who are used, and when the ways you are used hurts you, the authoritative institutions that exist will not take your well-being as a priority and their response, even if the best possible under the current system, will fall far short of what you deserve but will not admit such. My friend Bea is being forced now to live out another version of this, access to needed medical care denied, the appeal process itself hard to access, forms filled out handled slowly in institutional mechanisms - “it’s sitting in their mailroom,” she told me the other day when I asked how the appeal was going. Our lives in their most urgent and intimate elements can be used up, ground up, and in that grinding we will sometimes be told in effect to sit on hold and listen to the muzak and wait patiently and if we act out because so much of our lives are at stake we will be treated as the problem and often disciplined.


I don’t mean to trivialize any of that by calling it condescension nor do I want to overstretch the word to cover all of that, but I do think that learning to condescend is part of learning to take a role in the social order above some people and specifically above them in a way that one’s role is to keep them where they are, keep them in place, and learning to be loyal to the director who cast us in these parts and the playwright who wrote this shitty script.


Condescension identifies upward while spitting downward, I think. You who are below me are not like I am above you and, in being above you, am like those above us both, more like them than you, to be sure. The condescender then, I think, I could be wrong, in effect in part, or at least in the subtext, repeats others’ condescension of them. I suppose this has a limit: God and King do not self-condescend while simultaneously looking down on others. But in looking down they do affirm the rightness of the organization of society such that there is an upper location from which to look down, and when condescension gets in our heads I think we do the same.


And that’s part of why it’s fucked up that people who think they’re on the left condescend, without seeming to know they’re doing so, about the people they rarely admit they think they are above. ‘We who are above speak for those below, not to, but about and on behalf of.’ That speech makes those below tokens in a game of status - I am a righteous upperdweller, caring as I do for the unwashed below, while you are a selfish upperdweller. Point to me!


Leftists who talk this way are more leftish than anything else, having in mind a new world a lot like the current one, even though with some of the sharpest corners sanded down, and they play out scenes from this world’s script. They’re ultimately a force for reproduction of this world, even if in varied form, rather than for a better world where people decide things for themselves democratically rather than having their betters tell them to shut the fuck up. These leftish are mostly useless and symptoms, not the real problem, but when in power - in the current world, as someone’s boss, or in a new world that’s really the old, where they had more say - the habit of condescension serves well to feel confident in telling the lessers what to do and how and to not noticing the harms.


I don’t think this is a matter of individual hearts so much as institutional reproduction (we live in a pyramid-shaped society composed of pyramid-shaped component institutions) of ways of life and thought and attendant power relations. This means the condescending savior is less at fault than a product of the system, but when they play their part they push others into doing the same, and when challenged they sometimes dig in and then need to be pushed aside.


I could be wrong.

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