Dated, yet still relevant, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb brings to the limelight that which much of the world wishes to ignore. At least the affluent world. The very concept of “class” has a dangerously tilting effect on human society. That which is “valuable” is only so by common consent, and those who have more of it inevitably raise themselves above those deprived. In a world where food is scarce, bread becomes currency. The trick to any unequal society is declare an arbitrary standard of value that some may horde while others strive to attain it. We are largely content today to work for money we seldom physically see. We are employed at professions assessed by their value to the “owners” of companies who frequently misunderstand that ownership to include the lives of their employees. And that’s just the middle class!
No doubt, living standards for most people have improved in the decades since Sennett and Cobb produced their study, but the base root of the problem still projects out far enough to be tripped over repeatedly—lack of a sense of personal worth. The working poor have always striven for dignity, a sense of worth. I found much in this book that rang true for my personal circumstances. The Hidden Injuries of Class is based on interviews with workers, some of whom “changed classes,” working from blue collar to white collar positions. Validating my experience, the sense of self-worth among those who’d thus advanced did not keep pace with their class expectations. Those of us raised in the working-class world know our place. Yes, we may learn to act like those middle class, and sometimes privileged workers around us, but we know deep down that we came from humble stock. We sit at desks in offices, knowing that we belong behind a broom or holding a shovel. Not a day elapses when I don’t ponder that I’m a drone a little too deep into the hive.
Any society requires those who are willing to do the less-than-desirable jobs. It will take more than reality TV to add dignity to the personal assessment of such workers, however. Although I’m not a TV watcher, the times I view reality programs that highlight the “ordinary people” we come off looking like the unsophisticated rubes of the affluent imagination. Duck hunters may laugh all the way to the bank, but when you’re off camera a different reality, I’m sure, takes hold. We are entertained by the antics of those who don’t know how society folk behave. In my limited experience I went from janitor to academic dean of an Episcopal seminary where Archbishops of Canterbury were not rare visitors. Literal lords of the realm sat at the same dining table that now holds the peanut butter that comprises my lunch each day. I can act polished with the best of them, but I know once they leave I’ll again become the kid who grew up among junk cars and working-class prospects. And I know which is the more authentic life.