Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Respectability and Privilege

I saw a guy in church who looked like he didn't belong in his suit. I've been dwelling on it for weeks now. Over and over in my head, I've been thinking and analyzing and trying to figure out why I had a visceral, negative reaction to some guy showing up to church in a suit. I really don't know anything about the guy - I don't even know who he is - he just struck me as someone who can wear a suit when he needs to, but probably is not a suit guy.

My thought, in the moment, was to mourn a society in which someone feels the need to dress a certain way or make an appearance in a worship service to be considered generally respectable. There was also some measure of malice - not personal animosity, but definite judgement - about why someone would play that game, a game I've consciously chosen not just to play, but to spurn.

I'm not talking here about unrespectable people; people who earn an active disrespect. I'm more thinking about the difference between those we deem respectable and those who aren't. There's an obvious definition here: respectable people live up to the general expectations of society, people who check the right boxes: wear a suit to church on Easter, bring cupcakes for the Kindergarten party, keep your lawn mowed and green. Respectability is a function of how well we meet social expectations. The whole culture of "punk" exists specifically to flout those conventions, not necessarily because punks like being dirty or dress outrageously, but because they find a real disconnect with what passes for respectability.

It can be argued that very notion of respectability harms society, as well as individuals. We like the idea of having a public face and a general standard of behavior, but what ends up happening pretty quickly is that we use our public face to mask a private one that feels (especially to us) far less respectable. People are, in fact, flawed, and the more we're pressured or make effort to hide or deny those flaws, the more that brokenness has to come out somewhere.

Last year a nasty story about former British PM David Cameron came out, detailing a gross ritual he and his frat brothers participated in during college. It was never necessarily confirmed and polite society avoided it, but I saw several commentators talk about how "those things just happen," or "boys will be boys." One, in particular, though, made note of the expectations society, especially British society, has for the upper crust. The scions of the aristocracy are expected to be government ministers, head charities, and manage investments - they're expected to embody an incredibly intensive level of respectability, which really can't hold. It leads to equally incredibly feats of debauchery in private - think perhaps the parties from Eyes Wide Shut or the various secret societies that exist around the world, usually among the most respectable.

I find it fascinating that even outside the realm of religion, where, for good or ill, there is a certain pressure to be perfect, the same expectations, perhaps less explicitly, are just as real. This is the root of class struggle - an upper crust attempt to distance themselves from the mess of manual labor, and the working class embracing it. Respectability often comes down to one's ability or willingness to hide their mess.

All of that to say, I'm not sure if this doesn't backfire anyway.

I'm baffled by my own judgementalism. I don't really want to be a respectable person, both because I'd rather own my mess than hide it, but also because I get to choose. There's plenty of good justification for the first reason. Covering our flaws in a robe of respectability is detrimental to us and the people around us. My moral and theological convictions drive me to ensure all people are treated as the valuable human beings they are.

I get judgmental for the other reason - I still see the difference.

I've got the education and background to be a good "respectable" person if I wanted to be. As much as I love a ratty pair of jeans and a t-shirt, there's some inkling inside me to better meet the expectations society puts on people like me. I like being different, but I perhaps like more the ability to choose.

I'm more than willing to tear down the walls of respectability with my words and my actions. I'm less willing (in fact, I've probably worked against it more than for it) to break down those walls with my attitude. I root for the respectable team, even if I don't wear the uniform, even as I acknowledge all the problems inherent in the system.

So when I react so strongly against the notion of respectability, it's more a fear reaction. I'm terrified to be challenged to something more. I'm quite comfortable in my mess. To think that perhaps I can work in the midst of the mess to actually improve myself, to exceed expectations (my own and others') is to tempt fate and risk failure. A (entirely valid) critique of respectability is just as easily wielded as a means of self-preservation.

It's a sword that cuts both ways. Respectability can be a standard we hold one another two so as to prevent our own levels of self-concern from being challenged. We don't want our next door neighbor to take in homeless folks - as noble as it is, that kind of selflessness in close proximity rubs up against our well-curated societal expectations in uncomfortable ways that actually make us face our mess. At the same time, respectability can be a shield against a challenge to our self-concern from the other side. By owning and announcing our mess, in the form of critique, we're creating cover to avoid actually dealing with the mess we're so ready to name.

It's a unique form of hypocrisy - one that manifests itself in calling out hypocrisy. It's a hypocrisy that comes from privilege. Privilege is the ability to choose. From my privileged position I can say, "Why would you want to be on the other side of the fence? Don't pretend to be something you're not," but I say it as one who can choose either side of the fence.

Privilege gives me the option to ignore my mess, critiquing both those people who can't escape their mess and those who won't admit they have a mess. We all end up in the same boat - playing the respectability game in our own unique ways with exactly the same motivation.

I have no idea what relationship that suited stranger has to his mess, but in some weird way he's helped me understand that the curse of respectability isn't about whether we embrace or avoid it, but in our - in my - ability to redefine it not with how visible our mess is, but how well we deal with it.

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